Our dysfunctional public procurement processes are making it increasingly difficult for many consultants to operate, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

David Rudlin

You know when you are tendering for an important job and everything comes right. Your proposal is tightly written and pressing all the buttons, you have the right team and they know exactly what the commission needs and smash the interview. That happened to me on my first really big tender, a masterplan for Bradford City Centre. We were in competition with some of the best practices in the country and we won! I can still feel the glow of satisfaction in the hours after I took the call.

Then, a week later, I took another call telling me that an administrative problem with the tendering process meant that they had reluctantly decided that the procurement had to be abandoned. The regional development agency Yorkshire Forward had got involved and decided to re-tender with a revised brief. They appointed Will Alsop who did something very different to the job we would have done.

Of course, now adays URBED probably wouldn’t even have been shortlisted. Our social value offer would have been found wanting, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the £10M PI cover and our case studies would have failed to demonstrate that we had done three projects of a similar nature in Yorkshire in the last three years.

Not that I’m bitter! I have held off writing this column for more than a year since the demise of my old practice URBED for fear of sounding bitter. However, I have been prompted by a cri de cœur on LinkedIn from Alex Ely detailing his experience of the procurement system.

He lists two tenders in the last year that were cancelled after bids were submitted, two where the budget turned out to be a third of what was needed, and numerous invitations to tender where the terms were uninsurable, but where there was no scope to renegotiate. Talking to others I hear stories of tenders where they have never been told the outcome, where the winning bidder claimed their entire fee as social value, where the scores didn’t add up and where the comments seemed to relate to someone else’s bid.

The problem is that since Brexit the OJEU process that we all complained about has been replaced in most councils with something even more bureaucratic

Alex’s piece resonated because this is what finished off URBED. He estimates that Mae spent 10% of their turnover bidding for work, but at URBED, as our hit rate fell, it became much more than this and just became unsustainable.

Take for example, design codes. URBED wrote the National Model Design Code so you would have thought that we should have been well placed to pick up some of the commissions from the 21 Pathfinders who received government money to test run the code. Most of them spent the money on consultants but only six came out as open tenders, the others using existing consultants or going through frameworks.

Each of the open tenders had at least ten and sometimes many more bidders. In one of the bids we came equal first on the quality score but lost out on price by £700 (on a £120K budget). On another, a source close to the council told us that some bidders had ignored the prohibition on visuals and that a few on the assessment panel had been swayed. In the others we came 2nd or 3rd (in one case a disappointing 5th because we lacked local knowledge). Unlike the Olympics there are no prizes for coming anything other than first.

In a sense I have no complaint, as clearly we weren’t good enough at writing tenders. But the point is that the tenders assess your skill at writing tenders, not your suitability for the piece of work being commissioned.

At BDP things are easier, we are on most of the frameworks and we have teams of brilliant people who manage the bids – it makes me wonder how URBED ever won anything. However, even for a big practice I’m not sure that public sector tendering for the sort of relatively small projects that I do (as opposed to bidding for a hospital) makes commercial sense when you compare the bidding costs to the returns.

The problem is that since Brexit the OJEU process that we all complained about has been replaced in most councils with something even more bureaucratic. Last year we won a job with an almost impossible three month programme that had taken a year to procure. I know this is all in the name of fairness and I’m sure it’s a good thing that tenders should consider social value and other issues, but the bottom line is that the process exploits and disrespects the consultant community and excludes smaller practices.

I really don’t want to sound bitter! I do recognise that open procurement systems that give everyone the chance to bid are a good thing, but as Alex says, we need an urgent debate on what constitutes good practice.