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14 May 2019

Love me tender

Written by
Keith Johnston

Here is a tender story.  It is about procurement.  You know this is not going to go well.  But wait.  Don’t go.  In this story, there is hope and redemption to come.

Seven months ago we diligently filled out thirty-something pages of forms to submit a tender to be accepted on to the panel of approved leadership and development program providers for a large government agency.  Two months later we got an email explaining there would be a delay.

This week we got another email which explained that “due to internal pressures and the high volume of responses received [XXXX] has not been able to complete the evaluation of responses and therefore requires additional time to complete the Tender evaluation process.  In accordance with clause 5.17.1 of the Head Document, [XXXX] requests that the validity period of 180 days from the Tender Closing Time and Date (Offer Period) is extended to 540 days…. [XXXX] anticipates to complete the evaluation and contract awarding process in the first quarter of 2020.”

540 days!  That takes it from an aged cheddar to a vintage cheddar or perhaps moldy-back-of-the-fridge cheddar.  Age does not always become us.

But that’s the government for you, I hear you cry.  Well, yes and no.  At the other end of the spectrum is the throw-it-together approach to setting up procurement.  This year I have been involved in two tender processes with a large corporate that required a wealth of detailed information in response to a skimpy brief.  The nature of the procurement process made interrogating the brief of little value.   This was with an existing client with whom we have had a long and effective relationship.  However, that relationship is separate from the procurement process, for obvious reasons.

The first tender was for a particularly challenging proposition, delivering programs at scale that went beyond tokenistic ‘sheep-dipping’.  I was proud of the innovative solution we came up with to deliver quality experiences to large groups of people.  But we were declined.  So it goes. This was accompanied, of course, with a monastic silence as to why.  There was nothing to be learned about what we might do differently because we were told nothing.  The second tender was duly submitted six weeks ago, eight hours before the deadline: a couple of hours later the deadline was extended by ten days.  No explanation was given.  Silence has ensued.

What do we learn from this?  We learn (again) to stay away from the procurement process wherever possible.  But this is a tactical response.  In terms of improving or transforming what we offer, a strategic response, we learn very little.  We are learning professionals.  We do our best work in partnership with clients creating leadership programs together.  We each grow through this process.  The procurement process erects a rigid barrier to prevent such partnerships, or to delay them.

I understand why the procurement process exists.  I have been on the other side of it as a public service leader.  It has been developed to ensure fairness, create a market for services, develop more cost-effective solutions, enable new providers or new offerings to enter the market, and prevent capture by existing providers.  But it does this at the cost of imposing rigidities on the process, requiring expensive efforts by providers to make their case, and removing feedback and learning from the system.  In complexity terms, using the language of the Cynefin framework, it is a solution from the obvious domain to a problem that is not often obvious.  In fact, most procurement challenges lie across the complicated and complex domains.

We need to be handling the obvious elements of procurement in obvious, simple processes and allow the complex elements to be worked out in evolving relationships.

This is the hope part of this story.  Here is an example of an attempt to do just this.  Another client, New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs, has responded to the procurement challenge with a digital marketplace.  It is called Marketplace and has originally been developed for the buying and selling of IT services for government departments.  An OECD case study is included here.

As a provider you can apply at anytime (no deadlines for supplying information) You supply the required information about your organisation and the services you are offering.  Once your application has been assessed and accepted you are then able to list your catalogue of services in Marketplace., All that non commercially sensitive and non confidential information is publicly available.  Registered purchasing agencies (in this case, government agencies) can search for organisations offering the services they require.  They can choose one or a group of agencies they would like to have bid on a job. The purchasing agencies can access the pricing information vendors have provided (but this is confidential to them).

The obvious elements have been simplified and can be handled in the digital marketplace.  The complex challenges of effective design can be handled in relationships between purchasers and vendors.  Onward and upward!


The marketplace is in the foothills of the Atlas mountains near Marrakech in Morocco

One thought on “Love me tender”

  1. Nicolai Tillisch says:

    Thank you, Keith. Your lovely little piece sparks emotions. Procurement can be hasslesome for all parties – those serving, those who are served, and those procuring in-between. So many organizations that would get so much more value for their money by applying creativity to how they buy professional services. Even within rigid policies and procedures, there is space for frame agreements that allows safe-to-fail experiments, mutual learning, and evolutionary ways of collaborating.

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