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Tendering Business Q&A - Beginners Guide

Written by Thornton & Lowe


Mar 14, 2024

This beginners guide for tendering, has been developed to answer the frequently asked questions by organisations who bid, or want to start bidding for government tenders through the public sector procurement process. It has been developed from the perspective of an experienced and proven tendering business - that's us - Thornton & Lowe. As a business made up of tendering consultants and public sector procurement professionals, we understand the requirements of both sides and how to bring them together, which can help reduce the time for those new to tendering and want to grow through government tenders.

After supporting businesses to win public sector tenders through providing outsourced bid writing services for nearly 15 years, the questions below cover those which are asked most frequently by those looking to win government tenders and engage with a tendering business to support their drive for growth. At Thornton & Lowe we guide bidders to maximise their bid performance through a mix of commercial focus and understanding of the complex nature of government procurement procedures.

What is a tendering business?

From our clients perspective, often those new to tendering or beginning to start or develop their bid writing function, they often refer to us as a 'tendering business'. We are tendering consultants who support them to win tenders, by submitting formal bids. We provide tendering advice, guidance and consultancy to help them respond to formal request for proposals and invitations to tender.

A tendering business can also be referring to the 'the other side', the procurement team, or buyer who is purchasing the product or services. They will be inviting bids and proposals from suppliers, followed by an evaluation process and contract award. Within our 'buyer solutions' division, our housing association clients, for example, will refer to us as a 'tendering business' as we manage their procurement.

The purpose of this article is the former definition, the supplier side, who seeks a consultant who can help them tender and win new government contracts.

Government procurement & tendering business support

By government tenders we refer to public sector procurement opportunities, or those funded by the public purse so therefore have followed the same procedures. When Government bodies or the broader public sector need a product or service, they are restricted in how they work with suppliers. They need to show they have demonstrated value for money for the products and services they have bought or procured. They also need to ensure the government procurement exercise is open, fair and transparent.

This requirement for fairness has led to the development of formal procedures and laws on how government tenders and the associated bids into these public sector bodies need to be managed.

The result is a formal government procurement procedure for engaging with suppliers, for buying in goods and services, which businesses and suppliers of the sector need to fully understand in order to complete.

For further details on government tenders and public sector procurement please see our blog, which has hundreds of in-depth advice and guidance. Or why not book onto our bid writing training, designed to help you win more government tenders through tendering for business.

Tendering business services

Responding to these public sector tenders has led to businesses developing teams, often called Bid Teams or Tendering Teams, who are entirely focused on winning government tenders. These teams are often part of the wider sales or marketing function but are a critical function for businesses working within government procurement and public sector tenders. Bid Teams from competing businesses are challenged to maximise the quality submissions, which are a key part of the tender process. This is a written exercise but involves understanding the requirements of the government body, analysing the tender documents, and crafting a compelling response based on what they know about the market, the sector, competitors and the strengths of the business. This Bid Team or Bid Writer role has to work with many stakeholders in the business from technical delivery, operational management, through to performance, HR and finance in order to understand the implications across the business. This then informs the proposal and ensures it is practical, specific and offers a granular level of detail, which in turn provides the public sector procurement team reassurance of the businesses bid and their ability to deliver. This means higher quality scores in the tender submission and an increased changed of winning the contract, or getting onto the framework, depending on the price as well, of course.

Many businesses, also outsource their public sector bids either because they do not have the requirement or budget for a full time Bid Team, or they work with a bid writing consultancy to mentor their in-house team, train them and provide an extra pair of hands when they do have bidding peaks. Bidders quickly realise the peaks and troughs in their sector which are driven by public sector budgets impacting the volume of government tenders. Typically, Autumn and Winter are the busier times for our tendering business. Thornton & Lowe has been offering bid writing consultancy and outsourced bid writing since 2009; for further details see our bid writing page.

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Tendering business advice for beginners: bidders (FAQs):

Can a new business win a government tender?

Yes. The sector you work in and the nature of the government tender you are bidding for can make it more achievable, however. This often comes to down the risk associated with the tender and level of competition in the market.

For example, a complex civil engineering project designing and building a bridge, will make it very difficult for a new business to complete. With the nature of this large and high value government tender, means the financial stability required from bidders will be higher than other tenders. They need the organisation who wins the tenders to be of a size which allows them to both finance the project, but also as a result have the depth of infrastructure to fully deliver. This financial strength, experience, depth and expertise would rarely come from a new business. However, where this is often successful is with joint venture bids, which form a new limited company or entity in order to create the most compelling solution and therefore highest scoring quality bid. This is technically a new business but supported by 2 or more successful organisations who can provide financial guarantees, as well as the team and expertise.

Compare this to a consultancy opportunity. A public sector body requires a highly technical and expert led consultancy solution. It is low value and is almost exclusively focused on the background of those delivering the project. The risk of the contract is lost time, but if the project wasn’t successful and in a worst-case scenario, they could source another consultant. As a result, quite often they may not even have a financial standing question in this type of government tender.

Beyond finances, experience is really important. For most competitive government tenders, being able to demonstrate you have mobilised and delivered other local contracts can provide a lot of reassurance to a public sector buyer. Therefore, if you understand who is winning similar local government tenders you assess their ability to delivery this contract compared to yours. Who is best place? Often called bid qualification or bid no bid procedures, understanding your competition, their strengths and importantly can you create a strategy to highlight why you are the bidder of choice, rather a bidder in the government procurement exercise.

But yes, a new business can win a government tender, but you need to consider the buyers requirements, your competition and if you can compete. Be realistic with your chances of success. Quite often we will speak to businesses who aren’t satisfied with public sector procurement and government tenders and have often nearly given up on the sector. By understanding the market, procurement rules, competitors, being selective in your public sector bid opportunities and then investing into key government tenders which represent a real opportunity can significantly reverse the fortunes of those bidding for government tenders.

We may suggest, in our opinion, that the public sector isn’t a good fit yet, or you need to build up more experience in the sector ‘under the tender radar’ before bidding more formally for tenders in the sector. Quite often we refuse to quote on live tenders for new prospects who approach our business asking for a bid quote. We do this If we believe there isn’t a good chance of success and we would prefer to guide your business to get onto the right path, rather than take a high-risk approach which can blow your budget and our win rates

Is public sector procurement just focused on the bid price?

Sometimes a government tender can be purely price focused. However, very rarely. There are wider implications which are important to them which they need reassurance of and want to choose the bidder which offers the most confidence in their ability to deliver what they need. This is evaluated in the form of quality or technical questions within a government tender project. This assessment of quality and price is often referred to a MEAT, most economically advantageous tender; the balance between price and quality.

A common split for quality and price in government tenders in 60% on quality, on how confident they are of your ability which is assessed via questions on your approach often requiring evidence, 40% on price. Whole life costs are equally as important and can often form a central win theme of bid, whereby efficiencies can be achieved, or lower maintenance costs provide a way to maximise this score.

What a public sector bidder should be conscious of is ensuring they fully understand the evaluation criteria, including the pricing schedule as part of the government tender. Being able to understand what is require to maximise the pricing scores you can but with a solution which is sustainable for your business. For example, in many manufacturer or distribution tenders, the quality sections of tenders which be more achievable for all bidders to maximise the quality score. For example, meeting prescribed service levels (SLA’s) and KPIs, key performance indicators, for supply and delivery across their locations. If this can be committed to, alongside reassurance of your working procedures, policies etc. then the focus of the tender may result in bid price being the deciding factor, depending on your competition.

In most government tenders however, the quality percentage is higher than the price, highlighting their focus on service delivery, social value, added value and finding a supplier who shares similar values. As a tendering business we provide advice to help clients win government tenders, we can guide you through this tendering process, and most of our customers outsource their bid writing to us to manage and coordinate.

What percentage of government tenders are actually won by SMEs (small, medium, enterprises)?

The government wants 33% of all their supplier spend to go to SMEs. 99.9% of businesses in the UK are SMEs, so if government procurement is not using SME bidders in their supply chains, they are not benefitting from the vast majority of often local organisations available to them.

Currently, the public sector is not meeting these targets being around 10% under, however, the recent Procurement Act being implemented in 2024 is designed to further increase this and make more government tenders more accessible. The vast majority of our clients are SMEs and focus on winning government tenders. We provide bid writing consultancy or an entirely outsourced bid writing team; for further details on the benefits of bid writing consultancy for SMEs when bidding for public sector or government contracts.

Government procurement is not designed for smaller businesses. How can a small business win a government tender when up against national or much larger organisations who have a dedicated team of expert bid professionals?

If we consider the importance of Social Value, the consistent demand for a high-quality service, often with high service levels and the need to demonstrate value for money in government tenders, you could conversely argue that smaller businesses have the advantage with public sector bids. Especially, if the smaller business partners with a bid writing consultancy, who understands what government procurement teams require and have bidding expertise and capacity.

However, we fully understand with the complexity often associated with tendering for government procurement opportunities, it can often seem more akin with larger businesses. The public sector is continually pushing to improve their tender processes and procedures to make it easier for smaller businesses to complete. We have a specific article aimed at SMEs looking to win more government tenders through engaging with bid writing consultancy.

As a specialist tendering business we have helped hundreds of small businesses compete and win government tenders and frameworks.

What accreditations do I need in order to win a government tender?

The accreditations your business has will depend on the sector you work in more than anything. Technical accreditations, where relevant, are the key starting point. This is not always required in every sector, however. If we take the sector we work in, ‘work winning’ or bid writing consultancy or tender writing, while we have an Association, which we are members of, APMP, it certainly isn’t a requirement for us in order to bid and win public sector contracts.

Research is the key, understanding the requirements of the government tenders you will be bidding for and highlighting what comes up most frequently and which would help your chance of success while allowing you to bid more efficiently. For example, having a health and safety accreditation such as CHAS and Safecontractor, might save you having to complete a full health and safety tender questionnaire or PQQ each time you bid. This of course only being the case when you work in a sector in which health and safety is considered a high risk.

When completing public sector bids and if you want to win government tenders, your experience, solution and price is more important than an accreditation. However, key accreditations and quick wins may include:

  • ISO accreditations, for example health and safety (18001), quality management (9001), environmental management (14001), information security management (27001). By understanding who is winning the public sector bids you will be going for, you can research what they have in place. We for example, have ISO9001 and 14001, we are considering 27001 in order to give further reassurance to potential clients. However, we would not get more than this. Many of our successful public sector suppliers who win government tenders frequently, do not have these. Research is key.
  • Cyber essentials, detailed in a FAQ below.
  • Carbon Reduction Plan, an increasing requirement, a legal requirement for all contracts over £5m and for all suppliers to the NHS. Also, a requirement for all Crown Commercial Services (CCS) bids.
  • If you are in security, typically, SIA.
  • If you are in construction, typically, CHAS, Safecontractor, for example.

Do I need ISO accreditations for government procurement?

No. In some sectors it is more of an expectation and for some government procurement exercises and tenders it can be a PASS / FAIL question, so you do really have to it in order to bid. However, quite often you can provide details of procedures which provide the government procurement team, managing the tender process, an understanding of how your systems and policies are still compliant, even if they aren’t formally recognised. This however comes down to time and efficiency. Assess what is being asked for in government tenders and review what your competitors have.

Do I need 3 years’ financial accounts to win a government tender?

Public sector bodies need to ensure the suppliers they work with have the appropriate financial stability. This assessment required in order to complete a public sector bid and win a government tender can be tailored based on the government procurement bodies or contracting authority’s discretion. The minimal financial standing in the tender does have to be made clear and proportionate. Often there will be a minimum turnover level or minimum credit reference score in order to create a PASS and ensure you can continue to develop your public sector bid. This is increasingly popular usually with a requirement to supply accounts on request. If this isn’t clear you need to ask a clarification process via the government tender portal. A public sector bid can take a lot of time and effort, so you really don’t want to invest time on a tender response if it falls down on a basic PASS/ FAIL tender question.

In many tenders 3 years’ financial accounts may be required. However, simply having traded for 3 years isn’t really enough for a government procurement team to assess bidder’s financial stability. Again, if you aren’t clear what creates a PASS, ask the question.

Government tenders are continually being assessed by procurement teams in order to ensure they are accessible for micro, small and medium businesses. As part of your public sector bidding process you need to understand if you can bid, but even for new businesses, there are often many opportunities to work with the government and public sector.

As part of the Government Sourcing Playbook, updated in January 2024, Government procurement bodies provided with details on the Financial Viability and Risk Assessment (FVRA) Tool, including when to use. FVRA details can be found here.

Do I need 3 public sector references in a government tender?

Within the standard selection questionnaire (SQ), often referred to as a pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ), which is used in government tenders can ask you to provide 3 references. However, their request should be relevant and proportionate, which means especially when you are new to bidding into the public sector, it is important to check you understand the requirement and can offer compliance. They can be requested to be from the public sector and/or private sector (again being reasonable) but the references you supply within your public sector bid must be within 3 years (5 years for works contracts).

PPN 03/23 which is the most recent SQ template provided for government procurement purposes, states, within the relevant experience and contract examples section, that if you can’t provide the number of references requested that you have up to 500 words to describe why you do not have, for example, 3 references relevant to the government tender. It notes, “e.g. your organisation is a new start-up, or you have provided services in the past but not under a contract.”

For each contract reference provided you need to supply:

  • Name of customer organisation who signed the contract
  • Name of supplier who signed the contract
  • Point of contact of the customer
  • Position in the customer’s organisation
  • E-mail address
  • Description of contract. It is worth spending time to developing this content, which is usually limited to 500 words to show how the requirement is similar to the requirement for the tender you are bidding for. If you have won the tender via formal procurement process/ via a public sector bid, then using the scope of works can be a great start, but then adding any further value such as the challenges you have overcome during the contract to further demonstrate your expertise
  • Contract Start date
  • Contract completion date
  • Estimated contract value.

For further information on PQQs and SQs see our Simple Guide to Completing a PQQ.

Some PQQs can be competitive with a high demand and minimal numbers being shortlisted to tender. For support with bid writing and completing your PQQ or tender (ITT) contact us now. As Bid Writing Consultants specialising in government tenders and frameworks, we can guide your bid decisions and complete tender prequals for your business.

It’s chicken and egg; public sector procurement exercises and government tenders want my business to have experience of delivering a similar service, but if I can’t win, I can get the experience. How do I build up public sector experience if I can’t win a tender in the first place?

This type of question is exactly why SME businesses benefit from working with a tendering business. We recently wrote an article covering the Essential Question to Ask Before Writing a Tender Response. Also, as noted in the question on whether 3 references are required in order to win a government contract quite often private sector references can be used as long as it is relevant to the requirements of public sector bid you are assessing.

It may feel like a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, however there are several ways to build up relevant experience without bidding for formal government tenders. In our Ultimate Guide to Selling into the Public Sector, we detail government procurement procedures, tender thresholds and guidance on when government procurement teams can obtain 3 quotes, or even 1, while still ensures compliance, and not having to go to a formal tender exercise.

Government procurement teams have limited capacity so often need to take a ‘risk-based approach’ to procurement, meaning in practice many areas of spend are not compliant. This provides opportunities for suppliers to work with public sector bodies without a formal bid or bid writing exercise. This comes down to traditional sales, marketing and relationship building; engagement government procurement teams to start a conversation with you. In our blog, ‘Making a Government Framework for You: A Guide for SME Suppliers’, we detail additional opportunities for gaining experience with the public sector, as a result of the government procurement compliance you can offer as a result of being on a public sector framework agreement. Often a framework agreement can prove to be an effective route for those looking to build up experience in the public sector, but who may typically find it more difficult to win a government if advertised formally.

Other routes for building up experience without being able to win a government tender through a formal bid writing exercise, include pilots, which can often be used as a trial with public sector bodies for new products, or through the supply chain. Subcontractor opportunities present a great way to build up experience of working with the public sector but without having to respond to a formal government tender, while understanding your bid writing ability is hampered due to your lack of experience.

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I’ve missed a public sector tender, but it is my contact. I wasn’t told, what can I do?

This does happen and really is a nightmare situation. It your responsibility to monitor tenders, engage with the government procurement team, find the tender and bid. However, many businesses simply are not set up to manage this requirement for monitoring and bidding for government tenders so tender opportunities can be missed. In practice, most public sector buyers really should be highlighting to existing suppliers that they will be going to tender. For areas or sectors with a higher number of suppliers, while a government procedure team will endeavour to engage existing suppliers but fail to do so effectively due to having access to outdated information, for example. But this is more to ensure they can keep their existing suppliers, rather than their responsibility.

Tender Pipeline is our free tool to monitor tenders, which you can sign up for now. However, for any of your existing public sector clients, ensure you understand their procurement plans, when they will be going to tender again and where they advertise their opportunities. Find a Tender and Contracts Finder are both platforms, which are used to publish high and low value government tenders. Our software, Tender Pipeline, uses these plus others to ensure you have access to the data you need, for further help, refer to our article on strategies to find and secure local Council tenders and frameworks.

But if you have missed the deadline for a government and it is your contract, so you are the or one of the incumbent suppliers, there isn’t a lot you can do. Speak to your contacts in government procurement or who you deal with on a day to day basis. Explain the situation. Depending on the level of risk of the procurement, in terms of both challenges, but also in terms of your lack of engagement with process, could mean the procurement process could be stopped and re-started again. However, government procurement processes are often time sensitive and expensive exercises for them to manage, so your relationship and their concerns of not having you, would have to be very strong. If you are on a public framework agreement which they could use as a way to manage their requirements but without a new tender, you could also highlight this. For further details see our Bid Writing to Win Frameworks article.

Can I work with the public sector without bidding for a formal government tender or contract?

100% yes. Lower value contracts often don’t go through a formal tender process and many ‘government tenders’ don’t actually go to tender! They are non-compliant as government procurement teams prioritise their time and take a risk-based approach to managing their suppliers and spend. This often the route many businesses start to build experience in the public sector and then use this base to start bidding for formal government tenders, and the associated need for bid writing and formal documentation.

I’m not happy with the tender feedback I have had from a public sector tender. The winning bidder’s quality scores are considerably higher than ours, and I know their service does not complete. How have they managed to score higher on government tender than us?

You have to ensure you have been treated fairly in the government procurement process; it is the reason for the rules and formality of the procedures. You need to seek clarity on their decision, ask for more information and ensure it is clear you may need to formally challenge the government tender award.

However, a competitor’s level of service is not a reason to challenge the award of a government tender. The government procurement team will assess your bid and that of your competitors and assess what has been provided to them, as detailed within the instructions and tender evaluation details usually within the ITT documents or pack. We provide guidance on what an ITT should include in our blog. It is important if you know your service is better than your competitors to ensure it is clearly apparent and evidenced in your written bid submission. This is part of the skill of a bid writer or an outsourced bid writing consultancy, especially those which specialise in public sector bids.

If don’t believe your public sector bid has been evaluated fairly or the feedback you have had does not correspond with how they said they would be would evaluate the bid, we would advise you to seek legal advice to potentially challenge the government procedure exercise. As bid and procurement professionals specialising in government tenders, we advise our clients, but an experienced procurement lawyer will be required.

Typically, you need to ensure you have details of how your public sector bid compares to the winning bidder (the relative advantages) and scores as per their original guidance within the procurement pack.

For government procurement challenges or for bidders not satisfied with a specific tender process, there is a Mystery Shopper service which is the Public Procurement Review Service (PPRS).

We are being asked more about Social Value by our public sector clients and it is more frequent in the tender documents we get asked to complete. What actually is Social Value?

The Importance of Social Value in Tendering’ is an existing article which provides an overview of what Social Value is and why it is relevant to your public sector bids or government tenders. There are Nation Themes, Outcomes and Measures (TOMS) which provide a framework to help your draft your public sector bid. For further information see our detailed article on ‘Maximising Social Impact: A Comprehensive Guide to the National TOMS’.

The requirement for Social Value in government tenders stems back to the where the money is coming from. Government procurement processes and the resulting spend with suppliers all comes from the public purse. As a result, not only do government tenders have to be open, fair and transparent, but they also need to be accountable. Not just accountable in ensuring fairness but also in ensuring the money that is spent adds as much value to their communities linked to the contract. Public sector procurement teams and government buyers want to work with suppliers who share their ethics so as a result of winning their government tender, what does that mean to their local area while delivering the contract? Will the supplier recruit locally, train these staff, support local organisations? This ensures that the wider stakeholders or government procurement can all benefit.

The key is collating what you do now across your business, what you do now across similar contracts, and when bidding for a new government tender opportunity what specifically can you commit to, and report on, on contract award? This provides both evidence of your previous commitment, alongside a very bespoke and quantifiable offer within your public sector bid. Bid writing consultants, such as Thornton & Lowe, will help clients to both form a social value proposition, develop systems for monitoring evidence and develop a social value tender response for a government tender.

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I’ve been asked if we have Cyber Essentials as part of a government procurement exercise, what is this?

Tendering businesses we get asked this a lot in recent years. Cyber Essentials is a requirement (a PASS / FAIL question) in a growing number of government tenders, especially with Crown Commercial Services frameworks, for example. Quite often you have to commit to have it in place prior to contract award, meaning it does not stop you from bidding. You therefore create a PASS by ticking you will have it in place as part of your public sector bid.

Cyber essentials looks at your information governance procedures, the systems your business has to protect your data and that of your customers. For example, firewalls, backups, procedures to ensure you are securing your digital presence. ISO27001 is often seen as the next step, so often by having this accreditation you don’t also need cyber essentials for your public sector bid.

What policies do I need for public sector procurement and if I win a government tender?

  • Anti-corruption Policy. A statement that your company adheres to the law prohibiting bribery and corruption
  • Business Continuity Plan (BCP). This will help demonstrate your ability to continue providing a service with little or no disruption following a critical event. This should include contingencies for all events, such as power or telecoms failure, unforeseen site closures such as fires or floods, or staff shortages such as throughout a pandemic
  • Code of Conduct. This should be a robust document detailing the standards and expectations of your staff. It should include the core values of your business.
  • Complaints Procedure/Manual. Buyers will want to understand what happens when something goes wrong. Must include escalation, contingency, and resolution plans. Must also include a review plan.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) including your CSR is a great way to show in detail what your business is passionate about. A CSR should include overviews of social and ethical topics
  • Social Value Policy – detailing your corporate commitment
  • Environmental Management System (EMS) - this is a framework designed so your company’s environmental performance can be controlled and monitored. ISO 14001 guidelines can help build a robust EMS
  • Environmental Policy Statement - a statement relating to your environmental practices, and how you reduce your impact. This will reference your EMS. If accredited, ISO 14001 should be referenced. Often this can be provided in place of your EMS as a support document
  • Carbon Reduction Plan
  • Equal Opportunities Policy - must be in line with the Equalities Act 2010. This should include details of your equality and diversity practices
  • Information Security and GDPR Policy - detailing the data security rules and protocols your staff using IT equipment must adhere to
  • Modern Slavery Policy
  • National Minimum Wage or Living Wage
  • Quality Management System (QMS) - this is a framework of processes and responsibilities designed specifically to ensure consistency and improvement to your business practices. ISO 9001 guidelines can help build a robust QMS
  • Quality Policy Statement - this would be a statement relating to and summarising your QMS. If accredited, ISO 9001 should be referenced. Often this can be provided in place of your QMS as a support document
  • Recruitment Policy - maintain a robust recruitment policy that references the how, who and where. This should include references to your Equality Opportunities Policy.

As an outsourced bid writing consultancy, we will often be tasked with not only responding to the quality sections of a government tender, but also tailoring or developing new policies to reflect the requirements of the customer, or what has been asked for as part of the public sector bid.

For further information on getting tender ready and ensuring you have the right policies and procedures in place in order to win government tender see our specific article – ‘Essential Company Policies for Businesses Bidding for UK Government Contracts’.

After you are tender ready and have your policies in place, you might start to work on your core bid library content or boiler plates. For businesses new to public sector tendering for government contracts we offer Bid Templates, which provide a base of content and guidance, a starting point for your public sector bid.

How can I find out who my competitors are for public sector bids?

When bidding generally, but specifically for government tenders, due to the commitment and investment required, it is important to understand your competitors. Who are likely to be tendering for the same public sector bid? By completing a Bid or Tender Pipeline we can quickly provide access to this insight for our clients. This involves analyses contract award notices and categorising them into sectors and locations you work in providing detail of the winning bidders for the government tender opportunity. Also, public sector procurement framework agreements can provide further intelligence by highlighting often by location and service or produce based lots who is approved. This intelligence will provide insight into who is certainly winning other similar and local public sector bids. Our free tool Tender Pipeline can be used; however, many clients outsource this sales or business development research to us, due to how efficiently we can produce it.

Once we have these awarded government suppliers, we can produce desktop research to drill into all the contract wins for each competitor, information on their sales structures, route to market, accreditations, case studies etc.

By understanding those who are winning tenders you will have a good insight into who your competitors are for other relevant government tenders.

In addition to this, analysing spend data, attending site visits, meet the buyer events and often in the formal feedback from the public sector after their evaluation of your bid submission will include how you ranked against other bidders. While this can be anonymised, quite often supplier name is also provided which can provide valuable insight into your competitors and how they performed.

Can I see which government contracts and frameworks my competitors have won?

Yes. This can be competed via Find A Tender and other government sites but can often be difficult. Thornton & Lowe has free bidding software, Tender Pipeline, which allows you to simply type the competitor name and click search. You will see all government tenders they have won via formal contract awards, along with likely renewal dates, where this information is available.

How do I win a public sector bid?

At a high level, you find the opportunity, often a tender alert and then you bid. These are awarded and if you are the highest bidder via a mix of price and quality, then you will win the public sector bid.

In practice, there are a significant number of variables which influence who wins a government tender. Let’s highlight some of the main ones:

  • Bidding for the right opportunity. If it is a good fit for your business and there are clear reasons why you can fulfil the buyer’s needs, beyond other bidders. By at least understanding the risk level and likely chance of winning can help you made informed bid decisions to maximise your return on investment from bidding for government tenders. A good bid writing consultancy will guide you on this decision. Within our article, ‘How to create a Bidding Master Plan’ you can find more information on bid qualification and bid no bid decisions.
  • Compliance. You need to ensure your bid is compliance, that it will be fully evaluated because you can create a PASS when required. This might be based on experience, technical ability, policies, accreditations or financial stability, for example.
  • Price. You don’t always need to be the cheapest, but your certainly need to offer a competitive price, that combined with your quality scores will ensure you still end up on top!

An increasing number of organisations are choosing to outsource their bid writing to specialist organisations, a tendering business, who will be focused on working with you and your team to maximise your win rate.

The government procurement team won’t speak to me. I need to know key information in the tender in order to see if I can bid or not? Can you tendering business help?

When bidding for a government and the opportunity is live it is very rare that you will get the opportunity to speak to them. This does not mean you can’t communicate, however. Within the instructions to tenderers within the procurement pack you will find details of how to clarify points in the tender, which is usually via the portal clarification questions section. This provides a transparent tool and audit trail to ensure they can demonstrate fairness when working with suppliers.

How important is relationship when bidding through government procurement?

Not essential, but it is important. It is one of the questions in the bid qualification tool which we encourage our clients to use for public sector bids and government tender opportunities.

People still by off people and by monitoring each bid you go for and whether you have a good relationship with stakeholders or not, we would expect to see relationship making a difference to your bid win rates.

Depending on your bidding strategy, some clients only bid for a government when they have a relationship. This approach of course can vastly limit the opportunities open to you, unless you also look at how you can engage with more public sector stakeholders, prior to the tender. This is the key.

We have of course had many of our clients win contracts who have not had a relationship but if you are looking to maximise your win rate, relationship is one of the key variables.

How long does it take to win a government tender?

Government tenders and public sector bids is rarely seen as a quick win. You will typically have 5 to 6 weeks to respond to the bid and around the same time for evaluation and award. However, with delays, interviews, site visits etc. we always think 3 months is a good guide. You then have signing of the contract, TUPE if applicable and mobilisation. Many public sector procurement exercises can take a lot longer.

With government frameworks, the bidding timescales can be about the same, but you then need to wait for a call-off or mini competition, in order to bid for an actual contract. You need to wait for this opportunity to arise, bid, be successful of course, then have the award.

Is the incumbent supplier of a government contract going to win it anyway? What’s the point in bidding for the tender?

Typically, an incumbent supplier, provider or contractor should, in practice have a higher win rate. However, this does not mean they can’t lose it. As part of your bid preparation it is important to research the incumbent and look for signs which may help you decide if you can compete and if you want to bid. For example, could the contract have been extended but wasn’t. Why? Do you know typically in the industry they are not performing on their contracts due to a buy-out or too much growth? Often in government minutes and reports you can find how the specific area of the contract is performing or specific resident feedback for example, which can be highly useful. Or do you know you have a better solution, which aligns to the buyer requirements and based on the evaluation criteria you know you can score higher. Your solution helps them better achieve goals while saving money, for example. Understanding your competitors is crucial and comparing their solution, price, strengths and weaknesses against yours, and based on what the public sector buyer is trying to achieve.

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How can I increase by quality scores for government and public sector tenders?

When we first start working with clients on their public sector bids, we analyse their previous feedback from government tenders. By far the most common reason for losing quality scores is that the bid lacked detail, granularity and real practical information. Ensuring your bid team fully understands the clients requirements, have fully read the tender documents, and completed wider research to understand wider challenges in the sector, will provide you with a base of information to ensure you can create a solution which is fit for purpose and bespoke. This exercise, including comparing each element of the specification, then detailing the benefits of your solution, the feature, alongside your assessment of it compared against key competitors and the incumbent supplier, if applicable. This both ensures your bid is bespoke to them, adds value based on what you believe competitors will offer, while also creating clear win themes which differentiate your public sector bid.

Lack of evidence is also common. Even as the incumbent you can’t bid thinking they know your business and ‘what you actually mean’. Often in the evaluation criteria, evidence is made a necessity to score top quality scores in your public sector bid, however, even when it isn’t – it can only offer reassurance, mitigate against any perceived risks and ultimately ensure those evaluating the government tender fully understands the benefits of working with your business and believe it.

Give yourself enough time and resources on the public sector bid. Government tenders can be lucrative, but as a result they are competitive for both cost and quality. Ensuring you have the expertise and capacity to write a highly compelling bid is a must. This is why many businesses choose to outsource their bid writing to organisations like Thornton & Lowe, who provide this expertise and capacity, to allow your team to focus on their day jobs.

For further information see our specific article, which provides 10 ways to improve public sector bids, specific to increase tender response scores.

I don’t feel like I have been treated fairly in a government procedure exercise. What can I do?

This needs to be made clear to the contracting authority. With government tenders and public sector bids there are rules in place to ensure fairness. However, these have more implications and are often treated more seriously as a result, when they are a high value contract. While government procurement rules changes over the years what is important to know is that you have rights as a bidder. Feeling like you have been treated unfairly is usually after being told you have been told you have been unsuccessful. In this situation, a public sector buyer needs to provide clear feedback and a rationale why. For example, if they are evaluating your tender based on 60% quality and 40% price which is a common criterion, you need to understand how you scored in relation to this. In addition to this they will be break down the evaluation criteria into further by the number of quality or technical tender questions, for example. E.g. 6 questions, scoring 10% each (60% in total). You therefore need to understand how you scored for each question, compared to the winning bidder and the reasons why. What you scored based on your price and therefore how you ranked in comparison to other bidders. This will not only significantly support the development of your future bids, but it will also allow you to further understand whether you have been treated fairly.

If you have assessed the feedback and still feel like you have not been treated fairly it is important you write to the public sector procurement team, highlighting your concerns. This should be completed as soon as you become aware of the issue and within the 10-day standstill period which is designed for these purposes. This is the time after a contract award which is built in to give stakeholders a chance to assess. Your communication should be formal, and clearly communicate your reasons. Many clients will also include the Chief Executive of the public sector body to ensure it is dealt with seriously. Before sending this feedback, this is where legal advice can add a lot of value, though at Thornton & Lowe we often provide free initial advice based on our experience in this sector. In the majority of cases where our clients have successfully challenged a contract award decision for a government tender their reasons have been based on how the public sector buyer not following the instructions they provided within the tender instructions.

The government also has a mystery shopping service for procurement which you can report concerns to, known as the Procurement Review Service. Within the contract notice and tender pack there will be details covering this which will be specific to your public sector bid.

Should I be copying and pasting bid content when responding to a government tender or bidding for a public sector framework?

Copy and paste when bidding is a common area of discussion. For some it is highly frowned upon, while for others it can make up 80% plus of most of their bids. As an expert tendering business working with many different types of organisations, we think it comes down to the sector, value of the tender, complexity and nature of the competition. If you the product you supply or service you deliver is largely the same for a certain type of government procurement client and if they often ask the same tenders questions during the process; it just would not be an efficient way of working if you did not use existing bid content where possible. This of course should be tailored purely around the requirements of the live government tender, but

Can AI and ChatGPT write answers for the quality questions of public sector tenders?

There has been a lot of investment in this sector, including specifically within the ‘bidding space’. Our overall assessment is that any tools to support the public sector bidding process should be tested, risk assessed and used wherever possible. We are going to be including how to use these to support your bid writing for government tenders within our wider training courses.

The key is having a process to protect your information, what you have to put in in order to get any content back and having rules for it use. For example, it is only seen as a research tool, or as a starting point. We have developed an internal policy and procedure for its use, which we have started tailoring for some key clients.

If you are new to bidding it can certainly give you content to work with or give ideas of what to include for certain questions. But and even spending a lot of time to tailor really specific prompts, providing context and relevant elements of the specification and evaluation criteria, the level of what we get back doesn’t currently warrant the exercise.

As a specialist business offering outsourced bid writing consultancy, we are developing further guidance, tools and techniques to further embrace technology and work efficiently which we will be using where possible and promoting to our clients.

If we have a relationship with the public sector buyer - we win the bid, if we don’t, we are often not even shortlisted. What are we doing wrong?

We do hear this a lot. If you aren’t getting shortlisted for new government procurement opportunities or tenders, you are either bidding for the wrong types of contracts (based on your size, location, services, experience, for example) or and more likely, your approach to public sector bids is letting you down. This often highlights to the skills of a professional bid writing service, especially, those which specialise in government tenders, like Thornton & Lowe.

For clients like this we can offer quick wins and vastly improve their government tender win rates when bidding.

Why you win the bid when you have a relationship or presumably are the incumbent, is because, and rightly or wrongly, you may be given ‘allowances’ based on the fact they already know you are good and that they can trust you deliver. I would imagine you have also lost many of these tenders too, losing key clients, when the government procurement team have evaluated the bids without this wider knowledge or simply as they should anyway.

The only other reason could be when you have the relationship already with the public sector body and are already a proven supplier of theirs, you invest more time and effort into the bid. As an incumbent supplier, your win rate should always be higher if you are performing well and not down to bias in your favour during the evaluation, but because you will understand the procurement need more than other bidders, you will be able to mobilise quicker, you will have evidence of everything you have achieved for them to date. This is also why it is important for incumbent suppliers to plan and prepare for the renewal of government tenders and frameworks; you need to ensure your evidence is collated and available. Or you give your business time to propose improvements to the contract, which become bid winning case studies and can be used in wider bids to demonstrate your approach. Win, win!

Can I ask for the winning bid from a recent government tender exercise?

You can certainly ask. But bids and usually submitted with clear rules around confidentiality and what is considered to be commercially sensitive. The chances are you will simply get a negative reply, or elements of a public sector procurement bid which offers no insight.

This does raise an important point from a bidder’s perspective; ensure you understand the implications of data sharing, Freedom of Information and how you can protect your submission as far as possible.

As a bid writing consultancy, we get asked this question a lot and we are happy to discuss any specific examples you may have.

Is Freedom of Information (FOI) a useful tool to help my business understand more about public sector contract opportunities?

Going back a few years FOI requests were being used by some bid writing consultancies to support their clients but focused on asking a public sector body for copies of the winning bid! They have may have got lucky on one or 2 potentially but even then, it would be redacted, losing the value of the content, which is likely within what should be kept as commercial in confidence.

FOI requests can be a useful tool to support bid teams, however, in order to collect information which is also deemed to be of public interest, a better route can be to request details of incumbent suppliers, contract renewals, pipelines, spend data, decision makers for your services and products, for example.

My product or service does not fit the structure of the tender document and specification but would actually be a better solution for the public sector buyer and cheaper for them. Should I bid anyway?

It is important you fully read the procurement pack, including the instructions as some government tenders do allow, or are open to, alternate or variant bids.

Your bid no bid strategy comes into play here too and wider variables which impact your likely chances of winning the contract. If you have a good relationship with key stakeholders and many comparable and local examples, this may make bidding for the opportunity worth the risk. It is understanding the risks of going off-script… of submitting a curve ball.

There are some techniques to manage this risk. Can you provide a compliant bid? Can you make your solution fit, somehow? This is the ideal situation.

You can of course ask clarification questions to get further insight, but you need to be conscious with government tenders the answers will be shared with all other bidders.

Or you can just take the risk and submit a bit that is compliant as you can but offers them an alternative solution. Highlighting the benefits is key here.

Or can you do both – submit a compliant bid based on for example, an older client solution you have offered, alongside an alternate bid which is technically compliant but clearly demonstrates the additional value.

The value of the tender and resulting formality can also change things. Working for a niche consultancy client recently on a government funded tender, they could deliver a compliant tender but at such a lower cost than the indicative budget. We discussed with the public sector buyer the opportunity to offer additional and supporting options, which would add to the cost but offer significant added value to the buyer and their stakeholders, but still within budget. This was agreed as acceptable. Due to how government tenders are evaluated we ensured the client presented a compliant bid, which detailed the cost for this (the low-cost option), followed by the additional options and associated costs. From a procurement perspective, they can compare like for like, based on the low-cost option but also understand if they did award it to our client, that during the course of delivery, more options are available.

What is the typical length of a government tender? How long will the contract be for?

Most government tenders and the resulting contracts that we work on are 3 to 4 years long. This duration is very common as it is long enough to allow the supplier chance to deliver and perform, while also meaning busy government procurement teams are not having to re-tender annually or earlier.

You will often see tenders advertised by the government which details an initial term, followed by one or more optional extensions. For example, 2 years, plus 1, plus 1. From a bid research perspective, understand which contracts have not been extended can provide initial useful intelligence and warrant more digging. Is it because the requirement has changed, or the current supplier is not performing? Competing against a well performing incumbent supplier, who can also write a good public sector bid can be challenging. Bidding against a poorly performing incumbent make provide a much more accessible opportunity for your business.

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What is a good success or win rate when bidding for government tenders?

30% is often a figure quoted to us when we are first contacted by businesses looking for help with their public sector bids. The key impact on win rates from our initial discussion is usually whether they have already worked for the public sector body before or not. If they are the incumbent supplier their bid success rates are considerably higher; many quoting significant challenges in winning any new business from the formal government procurement process, which is why they contact Thornton & Lowe.

Our role, as professional bid writers or a bid management consultancy, is to benchmark this bidding performance and agree strategies to increase it. At Thornton & Lowe we complete over 500 bids per annum for our clients and our win rate is consistently over 75% and often 80% plus. This higher bid win rate when tendering for government procurement opportunities is for several reasons:

  • We are expert bid writing consultants who specialise in government tenders and understanding the public sector procurement process
  • By being more selective on what you bid for your success rate will instantly improve. Many of our clients when reflecting on tender losses knew it was a high-risk tender in terms of how ‘winnable’ it was. Agreeing a strategy based on an acceptable win rate for your business and which generate a health return on investment for your business is the key
  • Our clients bid for a lot of public sector procurement framework agreements, which are often multi-supplier agreements.

How much time should it take each time I bid for a government tender?

The time required to submit your public sector bid will depend on:

  • Number of questions, supporting documents required, word count or page restrictions
  • Complexity of the tender requirement – a bespoke solution being developed for a highly bespoke and new requirement will require more time working with your team in order to produce a compelling and practical bid for the government tender. It will also likely mean you ‘standard’ bid library of previous answers may not save us very much time
  • Complexity of the stakeholders involved – a bespoke solution based on a joint venture bid will for example involve increased level of communication, bid reviews, more time for developing and agreeing the solution, roles and responsibilities. Compare this to a re-tender for a contract you are the incumbent on, which has the same questions and same requirement from last time you successfully bid for it
  • Level of existing and usable bid collateral – this could be your tender library or previous responses from for similar bid into a similar buyer
  • The efficiency of your public sector Bid Team and wider management and technical stakeholders for the bid. Or what bid writing capacity you have available, whether in-house or via a bid writing consultancy, for example.
  • Evidence availability – having update to evidence, case studies, CVs, performance data, screenshots and testimonials, for example can vastly reduce the amount of time required for a bid. If this is not already in place, the data has to be collated and developed during the government procurement process, which is typically 4 weeks or less by the time a bid no bid decision has been made
  • Level of your competition and their bids. If in your sector public sector bids are typically high value and highly lucrative you need to be willing to invest what is required to ensure your bid competes. This differs by sector, often linked to the value of a government tender, can mean a much higher level of time and input required into to submit a high-quality public-sector bid. Understanding the level of your competition, time to bid and your return on investment is essential.

Based on these variables above, you can see why this is a difficult question. As a tendering business, for many of our repeat customers who bid regularly for the same types of tenders our quotes typically start from 3 to 4 days to write a public sector bid. However, for many other clients 20 days plus is the norm.

How can a tendering business help me?

Thornton & Lowe provides:

  • An outsourced bid writing service to our partners. We become your bid team for quality submissions, bid coordination, management and submission. We leave pricing up to you and we need to work closely with your team to collate evidence and your solution. However, our contracted partners benefit from efficiencies as they are working with the same professional bid writer for each government tender but supported by our wider Bid Team for continuity and added value. For further details and to make contact see our Bid Writing page.
  • Bid writing support for live opportunities or a single tender. Many of our clients only require adhoc bid writing support for infrequent, but important, government tenders. They share the public sector procurement pack and we provide a fixed fee within the same day and a plan to work within the tender deadline. If you have a live tender and need support, please contact us now.
  • Bid reviews allow us to added value to our clients live bids while also training their team. We provide a ‘bid review and comment’, which gives guidance and suggestions for our clients to assess and make the changes. Or we provide a ‘bid review and improvement’ service, whereby we take your first draft as a starting point to build upon.
  • Bid writing training, workshops and bid mentor service. We run bid writing training courses across the UK, which are useful for both those who are starting off in public sector bids and also those looking to improve their skills. We offer bespoke in-house bid writing training, delivered to your company and tailored based on your requirements. Prior to developing the training, we will discuss your needs and review a recent bid before then developing and delivering a bespoke bidding course.
  • Finding government tenders should be easy, but it isn’t. Understanding which frameworks, you can get on, are worth being on or which government procurement portal to register with can be time consuming. When it comes to tender alerts, monitoring government procurement opportunities and tenders, we have Tender Pipeline, which is our free software and Search & Selection, which is a personalised service. Our team monitor tenders based on your requirements and work with you to understand what is right. We send an email only when we find an opportunity that is right for you. If you want to find out more information on the opportunity, simply reply and ask. We access the portal, download the documents and provide a bid summary detailing the requirements of the government or public sector tender.
  • Bid coordination and administration can quickly become a headache if not managed effectively. Many of our clients use both our bid writing and bid administration service. This service includes monitoring your portals, alerts, as well as tender opportunities and submissions extending into bid coordination and project management. For clients who have a smaller bid team of professional bid writers, they can often free them up to work on added value, by using our bid administration service as a support tool and to ensure continuity for this critical role.
  • Our Bid design services allow clients to present professional, compelling and reassuring bids into government procurement bodies. This is an additional way to standing out from your competition. Even within restricted government tenders there is still scope for professional bid design, formatting and layout. Your supporting documents, policies, procedures and plans should equally portray a positive and professional image.
  • For those who are new to bidding for government tenders, our Bid Templates can offer real value for money. By being able to see what tender responses for government procurement should look like, they set expectations for your team. But as we have templates across each key sector, it also means you have a base of tender content, or a bid library, to get you started. This content is based on the frequently asked tender questions from your sector. Many clients also ask for us to create bid or tender libraries for them, using their existing information, producing a gap analysis, collecting information and writing a new and improve based of content for your team and to ensure your frequently government tender questions have up to date and high performing responses.
  • As detailed above, relationship still plays a role despite to the processes required of government procurement. As a result, Thornton & Lowe offers consultancy to help you engage with the public sector, have a plan for business development in sector to ensure when a government tender is advertised that you are one step ahead of your competitors. This service sits within our Public Sector Sales and Marketing division.
  • Carbon Reductions Plans are now required more than ever for suppliers of the government and those involved in public sector bids. Thornton & Lowe can develop your Carbon Reduction Plan and keep it up to date, to ensure compliance for your tenders and frameworks.

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