Posted by Jon
I think my mission in life for the year ahead ought to be to destroy public sector procurement as it now functions in the UK.
The job of buying on behalf of government? I have no idea if there’s a grand, centrally-held mission statement somewhere in Whitehall, or in town halls across the nation. But were I to have a go at drafting it at my desk early on Saturday morning before my first coffee of the day, it’d read something like:
Professionally sourcing solutions from the market that enable the most effective and most efficient delivery of public services to those who depend on them.
It should be about drawing out excellent offers via excellent proposals from competent bidders, in a well-managed, fair and cost-effective way. As founder of a business, I’d like to hope it helps smaller and local businesses (and disadvantaged groups) to thrive.
As a taxpayer – both personally and through our company – I’d also hope it would be about ensuring value for money: not necessarily the cheapest (for cheap is rarely cheerful), but the option that delivers the best overall use of scarce public funds. That has to be a holistic view – not just the costs billed by the eventual supplier, but factoring in the time and cost of those on the government side of the procurement and delivery too.
To give just a few illustrations of how the inept cadre of so-called procurement ‘professionals’ operate right now in the UK public sector from deals we’ve worked on in 2014 to date:
Duplicating and wasting effort. Running ridiculously complex processes that merely seem to protect or generate jobs for civil servants. Treating the supply market with contempt. And, as a result, no doubt resulting in poorer public services for those who depend on them, and wasting taxpayers’ money. Who’s in control of this stuff? And is it any wonder that if things are done so very badly on smaller and medium-sized projects, we hear tell of so many disasters on major procurement exercises?
Actually, I’m not sure I blame the individuals: when ineptitude is so widespread, it has to be the system to blame – the very role of the purchasing function; the processes it follows; the calibre of staff recruited (partly tied into the salaries and grades for the job); the training offered; the way feedback from the market is handled.
Of course, it’s easy to pick on isolated examples of poor practice – and this post is designed to be provocative: something of a Modest Proposal. There are, of course, many incredibly diligent, top-class procurement folks working in the public sector. But life for them must be very lonely.
Any thoughts? Or am I standing on this soapbox alone?
Posted by Jon
Two questions on my mind, as I start back at work in 2014:
- what proportion of proposal people ended up working on bids over the festive season?
- and why on earth are very many procurement people so disrespectful of the staff working for their suppliers as to set deadlines at the very start of January?
I can offer my own perspective on the latter, from my days in purchasing (before I switched sides of the negotiating table, back in 1999). Running a very large (multi-hundred-million pound) global outsourcing deal for a major bank, our project plan included the eminently reasonable target of completing our RFP by the end of the year – before we broke for Christmas and the New Year.
What we then did surprised the shortlisted vendors: once the document was finalised (around the 18th, if I recall correctly), we refused to send it to them. Our rationale? Firstly, that we wanted the bid teams to be fresh and creative when preparing their responses. And secondly that expecting people to work over the holidays was entirely inconsistent with our stated aims of genuinely finding a ‘partner’ who could help us to bring about change to the way in which services were delivered to our organisation. That’s why our project plan was always clear: complete the RFP before the holidays; issue it at the very start of January, and then give the bidders sufficient time to respond professionally. Good for them – but, ultimately, helping to draw out the best propositions from the market for us.
I rather suspect that’s an unusual approach for a procurement manager to take – but, then again, this was a somewhat unusually forward-looking and strategic purchasing function, many of whose members have gone on to do other wonderful things in their careers since. Your more typical – junior, tactical, arrogant buyer – is far less likely to care, or even to think through the consequences (for them!) of their actions when issuing a Yuletide document.
So, if you’re in a part of the world where this has been a holiday season, did you end up working flat out right through the end of December, or heading straight back into the office on the morning of 1st January? And, do you think the potential clients concerned got the very best of your organisation in the offer and proposal that you submitted as a result?
Posted by Jon
OK, so the following isn’t about bids per se, but as an illustration of the consequences of choosing the wrong supplier for a job, this (forwarded to me by a non-work friend the other day) really made me laugh…
Read the text before looking at the photograph:
You may be asking for trouble when you commission taxidermy work from someone who is unfamiliar with the species. That was just the case for King Frederick I of Sweden in 1731.
Posted by Jon
What do evaluators really think of the proposals they receive from bidders? Prior to presenting to a recent UKAPMP chapter meeting alongside Steve Mullins (Chairman of Strategic Proposals), we conducted a survey to canvass the views of senior figures in the world of procurement. We posed three questions to them:
The results were quite fascinating: in essence, proposals are clearly a vital part of customers’ decision-making processes, yet few vendors submit truly excellent documents. (Since we were presenting to the UK chapter of APMP, those who participated in the study were in the UK and continental Europe, but I have no doubt that similar conclusions would be reached from a similar survey in other geographies).
Here are my ten favourite quotes:
Posted by Jon
What’s it like being a purchaser? As regular readers will know, I started my career in procurement before moving into the world of proposal management – and I still spent a fair proportion of my time with buyers and evaluators. I thought a few insights into life on the other side might be of interest:
1) The enemy lies within. Somewhat bizarrely, the easiest discussions for a buyer are with their potential suppliers. It’s far tougher trying to align resources, budgets and views internally. Running the procurement process is often a precarious high-wire act.
2) Powerless purchasers. The evaluation team will formulate recommendations as to which supplier to choose – but they’ll rarely sign off the decision. Making the presentation internally to the “great and the good” can be a daunting prospect. And, as a buyer, I’ll probably choose whichever bidder I think I can sell internally most easily.
3) “I’m the buyer. Stupid.” Most procurement people are acutely conscious that they know far less about the subject matter of the bid than their potential suppliers. (If this is what their organisation did, they wouldn’t need to ask you to do it for them!)
4) “Your fate is in my hands.” I have the power of life or death over your bid. Win, and you’ll get the glory and our money. So you bidders had better be grateful, respectful, deferential and nice to me. (After all, my colleagues internally aren’t!).
5) I’ll have to live with the consequences of the decision as to which bidder we choose – and those we reject. Thinking short-term, I’ll select whichever company will make me hit my performance objectives, whatever they may be. And in the medium term, I’ll want the bidder who’ll minimise the risk of things going wrong and maximise the probability of me looking like a hero. (And, incidentally, debriefing unsuccessful suppliers can be a terrifying prospect – especially losing incumbents).
6) Making it up as I go along. Only a small minority of purchasers have ever been trained in writing RFPs and leading evaluation workshops. I’ll copy and paste, I’ll use the last document I wrote; it was probably good enough then, and it’ll probably get me through now.
Cynical and jaded? Moi? No wonder I prefer working in proposals!
Posted by Jon
[Those of a sensitive disposition, look away now!]
I ran an event recently for a group of purchasing managers, discussing the proposal process – and sharing thoughts on how they could engage bidders more effectively and write better RFPs. (The unofficial sub-title of the course is “What Jon wishes he’d known when he worked in procurement”!)
The conversation turned to proofreading, and one of the buyers shared her most embarrassing mistake in this regard. She’d just led the evaluation team on a major tender, and was presenting to the Board with their recommendations.
She clicked onto the slide titled: “Weighting and Ranking” – only to find that she’d accidentally swapped around two very important letters….
It reminded me of the all-time worst proofreading error I’ve seen in a proposal – which, fortunately, was noticed at the very last minute. The team was bidding to a major city’s “Mass Transit Authority”. Some content contributors had decided to merge the two words together – “Masstransit”. And a document manager, tight for time, had simply accepted the word processor’s recommended correction.
The result? All the way through the proposal, the bidder had referred to the customer as the “M*sturb*te Authority”.
Posted by Jon
It’s always fascinating to hear from those on the buying side. I started my career in purchasing before switching to proposals, and still spend as much time as possible with those who evaluate our documents, listening to their views. (Actually, it strikes me that there’s an important question to ask proposal consultants hoping to work with your organisations: “When did you last have a paid engagement with purchasing folks, or publish research based on their views?”)
That’s why I was delighted when Kevin Treeby, Director of Procurement for the House of Commons, agreed to give the keynote presentation at the recent conference, “Taking proposals to the next level.”
I sat at the back of the room, noting down as many of his comments as I could. Here are a few of my favourites:
“We have a fear and distrust of people who sell us things.”
And finally, one I particularly loved. “This is a great game, people – enjoy it!”
Posted by Jon
The recent UKAPMP conference was a triumph for the organisers: an excellent programme, extremely well-attended, in a high-quality venue. (My congratulations to Richard Jenkins, Frances Campbell and the rest of the organising team, as well as to Pat Thomas as UKAPMP CEO for overseeing the chapter’s success).
I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Jack Paine, Director of Procurement at the Department for Transport. He emphasised that whilst his team has an obligation to seek the most advantageous economic solution, “that does not mean that the cheapest price wins”.
He went on to explain that:
“We start with deliverability, then we look at price… It is no good me buying something on behalf of the taxpayer that is not fit for purpose.”
Great ammunition, this, for those working with sales colleagues who dismiss the importance of strategy and value, in favour of “it’s all about price.”
I also loved Jack’s anecdote of the worse line he’s seen opening an Executive Summary:
“Inn every aspect of our business, we seek ultimate quality.”
Posted by Jon
Our dear friend Sheilagh Douglas-Hamilton is one of those rare folks whose career has straddled senior roles in both purchasing and proposals, with great success. She’s been back in the world of procurement for the past few years, but we still end up debating proposal issues together on a regular basis.
One recent discussion concerned the role of the Executive Summary. Sheilagh fired the following across to me the following day by email, and was happy for me to share it here:
The purpose of an Exec Summary? To blow me away so I can say, “Yes! Yes! Yes! They really do understand my business and what I want!”
A good Exec Summary “shows that not only do you understand my requirements, but why you are the one to deliver them.” It should provide “a clear, concise summary telling me at a glance, in easy to understand language, why your offering is the best.”
And here are Sheilagh’s views on the characteristics of a successful Executive Summary:
1. Beautifully written
I always find this sort of input from an experienced evaluator’s perspective really useful. How does the Exec Summary of your most recent proposal fare against her criteria
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BJ Lownie and Jon Williams are the co-founders of Strategic Proposals.