OPINION12 November 2009

Ticking outside the box


Some of the hoops that research suppliers are being asked to jump through in clientside procurement processes are time-consuming, pointless or just plain weird, says McCallum Layton’s head of b2b Kate Thompson.

The increasing influence of procurement on the selection of research agencies to undertake projects no doubt has its benefits. It provides a consistent framework for judging submissions that reduces reliance on ‘gut feel’, and it ensures that the people commissioning the work can point to a rigorous process if questioned on their decision. And it might even, some of the time, ensure that the most appropriate agency comes out on top.

But what is going on? Are clients concerned that the questions were getting too easy, that we might just be cutting and pasting answers from previous pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) without giving enough thought to each individual case? Do they think we weren’t being tested enough on matters that might not even be relevant to our ability to do the job?

I accept that priorities change over time and procurement questions, particularly for the public sector, must include the current hot topics (so we now have to cover sustainability, for example, as well as health and safety and equal opportunities). But over the last couple of years there seems to have been an explosion of new hoops that suppliers are required to jump through.

Working your way through all of those ‘Are you bankrupt?’, ‘Have you been taken to a tribunal?’ questions is fine, of course. Going down a tick list doesn’t take too long, adding your established policy documents that you have carefully put together to meet your own responsibilities as an employer and the information needs of clients. You can then get on to the more interesting and valuable matter of your proposed approach to the project. But then you hit up against something like ‘Provide details of any strategies your organisation has introduced to improve safety’ and there goes a whole chunk of time that I can’t believe will be much use in the wider scheme of things. When that sort of thing just crops up occasionally, you live with it. As far as I can see, though, the extent to which this sort of question is being introduced is on the rise. For those agencies that don’t employ people whose sole remit is to respond to PQQs and tenders, those of us who also do the day job need to manage our time as effectively as possible. If this carries on, we just won’t see applying for these contracts as being worth our while – which will limit the pool of possible contractors willing to invest the time.

I don’t mind at all being challenged and spending time on enquiries that feel worthwhile. For instance, I thought ‘What is your business strategy?’ was quite a good question in relation to a three-year contract for developing an ongoing research programme, to get a feel for the sort of organisation submitting the tender. But how would ‘Demonstrate a culture of raising awareness of environmental responsibilities in day-to-day business dealings and any protocols in place’ help a client decide who will be a good fit for standard b2b telephone surveys? We avoid wasting energy in order to keep our costs under control – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be competitive and would soon be out of business – but our CATI unit still has to be powered, lit and heated if the work is to get done.

Here’s another one we’ve had to answer recently: ‘Evidence the capability to communicate effectively by email, particularly to provide reports and other documentation electronically i.e. minimally paper based.”  Feels like the sort of question you hear of Oxbridge panels putting to prospective students to test their creativity.

There will be the argument that standard procurement questions are used across the board, and some may be more relevant to particular types of contract than others – the write-up of the research approach will count for more marks in the scoring system. That’s fair enough, but while it’s quite possible to score very well on the substantive matter but still fall short on the total score, you want to at least try to answer everything as positively as you can.

“You only need to look at the major publicly-funded IT systems commissioned in the last few years to wonder whether the process necessarily leads to the best outcome”

It’s an inexact science anyway. Looking at the way client teams are instructed to assign points to responses, a system that was presumably put in place to remove any subjectivity still in fact often relies on people making a personal judgement on whether an answer is ‘excellent’ or just ‘very good’ – and that can make the difference between being shortlisted or not. If the scoring is being done by people who maybe don’t have a great deal of research experience, relying on this supposedly formalised, ‘safe’ procedure may not give the client the best solution. You can justify your decision and take comfort from the fact that you appear to have achieved best value, but you only need to look at the major publicly-funded IT systems commissioned in the last few years to wonder whether the process necessarily leads to the best outcome.

And then there’s the plain weird. The following question (text copied faithfully from the online system) appeared with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options: “Please confirm if your company has not more than 25% of the capital or voting rights is owned by an enterprise which is not itself an SME.” I can’t help thinking the only possible response to that one is actually ‘Yeah but no but …’, but there’s no radio button for that.

So where do we go from here? I feel there’s a need to try to streamline the process. It was easy enough to introduce the European Directive mandatory exclusions by introducing a standard checklist of questions – could this approach not also be taken to the other basic background information on our suitability to contract with? Let us tick boxes and attach the standard policy statements we have already developed relating to whatever the latest regulatory or policy issues may be, and leave it at that. This would require some agreement as to the key elements we would need to demonstrate in order to evidence a valid commitment to environmental issues, sustainability and so on, but that surely shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve with a bit of debate.

Then the rest of the process can focus on the real meat of the matter – can the supplier do the job, and do it well, and are they the sort of organisation the client can work with? Here the key is the relevance of the questions to the requirements of the project or programme. I appreciate that a client undertaking a great deal of research may not want to tailor all questions individually for each contract. Still, some time spent in advance by experienced clientside researchers and their procurement support functions, which focuses attention on what this specific project will benefit from, will help ensure an efficient and productive process for everyone.

Finally, may I take the opportunity to thank those clients who do think through the realities of their PQQ and tender submission processes, minimise the burden on potential suppliers by keeping these to the point, and probably end up with a better result all round?

Kate Thompson is head of b2b research at McCallum Layton


15 years ago

Never a truer word spoken....I would spend longer chatting but I have more procurement boxes to fill in. We all argee that the tendering process should be fair for all, but I would agree that the questions range from the merely repetetive and slightly irkesome to the downright ludicrous and potential deal breaker. My fear with the ever increasing commodisation of research by procurment is that good research is being stifled and only the brave and tick box savvy can get through many a tender process successfully.

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15 years ago

Absolutely agree. We have given up on tenders and frankly got completely disillushioned with the organisation pitching these documents - mostly from EU and Government organisations I might add. A lot of these questions would fall under none of your business and I certainly would include environment issues within that as well. Tenders should not be poliiticised like this. Intuition and subjectivity are absolutely essential to making good decisions, this supposed empiricism is nonsense and destructive..

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