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The Ultimate Guide to Selling into the Public Sector

Jun 27, 2023

This guide has been developed to help small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) who want to grow by winning public sector opportunities. We will look at what is required to develop public sector focused sales and marketing strategy, how to win work from framework agreements, the sales and marketing structure of successful public sector suppliers, and how to use procurement rules to your advantage.

It will help businesses:

  • Looking to start working in this sector, and

  • Those looking to further grow their public sector sales

It is not focusing on bid writing best practice or tips to improve your quality responses. For this please see our Ultimate Guide to Bid Writing

It instead focuses on how to increase sales in the public sector, by:

  • Building relationships and market engagement

  • Framework maximisation

  • Using procurement rules to tailor and improve your sales and marketing activities

Key messages:

  • Sales and marketing is just as important when selling into the public sector

  • People still buy from people

  • Relationships and trust are significant determining factors when looking to sell more in the public sector

A public sector supply chain partner focused on helping your business grow

Thornton & Lowe are specialists in “winning work” in the public sector. We support businesses to navigate the complex landscape of the public sector and achieve growth.

We understand that winning work in the public sector requires more than just bid writing expertise. With a strong background in the public sector ourselves, we possess an in-depth understanding of the challenges, intricacies, and expectations unique to this market. This invaluable knowledge sets us apart and empowers us to guide our clients in making the right marketing and sales decisions that maximise engagement and increase overall win rates.

Our team of professionals bring a wealth of experience in the public sector. We have successfully navigated the complexities of various industries within the public sector, including healthcare, education, local government, and more. Our deep understanding of these sectors enables us to tailor strategies that resonate with decision-makers and address their specific challenges.

Our public sector specialist sales and marketing consultancy team works closely with our clients to develop robust sales and marketing strategies that align with the unique requirements of the public sector. Let us guide your team, identify key decision-makers, create compelling campaigns and optimise your sales.

We continually monitor market trends, procurement regulations, and emerging opportunities, providing you with valuable insights to shape your strategies. With our up-to-date knowledge, our clients can make informed decisions and stay ahead of the curve.

Who are the ‘public sector’?

For clarity, we are taking the broadest categorisation, when we refer to the ‘public sector’. Encompassing all UK government, the public sector and those funded through the public purse, which impacts how they buy their goods and services. Including:

  • Government Departments - these are central administrative units responsible for specific policy areas. Examples include the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Home Office.

  • Agencies - government agencies are specialised bodies that operate under the authority of specific departments. Examples include the Environment Agency, Food Standards Agency, and Health and Safety Executive.

  • Local Authorities - local authorities are regional or local governing bodies responsible for delivering public services in specific geographic areas. They include County Councils, District Councils, and unitary authorities.

  • Universities - universities in the UK often receive public funding for research, teaching, and infrastructure development.

  • Housing Associations - housing associations, also known as Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), or Registered Providers (RPs) provide affordable housing options. They receive public funding and are part of the publicly funded sector. Examples include organisations like Clarion Housing Group, L&Q, and Peabody Trust.

  • Schools, Colleges, Academies - educational institutions such as schools, colleges, and academies. They receive government funding and provide education services to students. Examples include state-funded schools, sixth-form colleges, academies and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs).

  • NHS (National Health Service) - the NHS is the publicly funded healthcare system in the UK, providing medical services to the population. It consists of various organisations, including hospitals, clinics, and healthcare providers.

In the world of public sector procurement or buying you may hear the term ‘Contracting Authorities’. This is a list of public sector buyer types who are required to follow certain procedures due to their funding. They, therefore, are a Contracting Authority. In the UK, the definition of a contracting authority is determined by the Public Procurement Regulations 2015.

Third-sector (non-profit and voluntary) and private-sector organisations can also become Contracting Authorities if they receive public funding that meets certain thresholds. For example, you may see a large charity or Chamber of Commerce or Business Growth Hub, for example, advertising and buying services in a similar way. This is because of the funding they have received, which means that they are subject to public procurement rules when awarding contracts.

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Public sector key decision makers & job titles

Depending on the service, product or works you are selling in to the public sector you will of course have to speak to different decision-makers. While Procurement Directors and Managers are part of the solution, it is often the Service Lead/ Head of Departments who is key initially.

Across the vast array of public sector bodies, and depending on your service, these may include:

  • Chief Executive

  • Finance Director

  • IT Director

  • Director of Planning & Development

  • Director of Clinical Services

  • Director of Estates and Facilities

  • Director of Research and Development

  • Director of Nursing

  • Director of Human Resources

  • Director of Property & Asset Management

  • Director of Housing Services

  • Head Teacher

  • Head of Social Care

  • Head of Parks & Recreation Services

  • Head of Legal Services

  • Service Delivery Manager

  • Recruitment Manager

  • Estates Manager

  • Environmental Services Manager

  • Property Services Manager

  • School Business Manager

What are the public sector procurement rules?

The public sector has to ensure they spend in a way which is open, fair, transparent and accountable. They need to ensure they are achieving value for money, which is a combination of price, quality and ethics, including social value. We have developed a guide on the importance of social value in tendering

Public sector spending is broken down into 2 categories of low-value and high-value contracts, which then define the rules they must follow.

Low-value contracts

A public sector body may require only one quote (!) instead of a formal procurement exercise in certain circumstances.

  • The opportunity does not need to be advertised

  • They will approach who they know, ask around, and research just like the private sector would

While the specific rules can vary between different organisations, for goods and services contracts:

  • Under £5,000 – one quote, preferably written

  • Over £5,000 and to £25,000, a minimum of one quotation but ideally three

  • Under high value and down to £25,000, formally advertised and requires a minimum of 3 quotes

This does vary depending on the buyer type but hopefully shows the scope and opportunity to suppliers, especially those with lower value ‘entry offers’.

For example, housing associations may not advertise contracts under £50,000.

A further example - a Council, typically allows the following:

  • Under £25,000 and one budget holder, or officer can often make the decision

  • Under £100,000 usually a Head of Service or Head Procurement

  • £100,000 to £250,000 usually requiring more formality and a Service Director approval

These lower-value contracts are a chance to build up relationships and trust with the public sector, and show what your business can do. As well as increasing sales, you are also increasing your chances of winning higher value contracts going forward, which may require more formal procurement.

Also, and as we discuss in more detail below, these thresholds and procurement rules are what should happen only. They are an ‘ideal’ and compliant situation. Many contracts will exceed this value but are not formally advertised as a tender due to either a lack of capacity or prioritising other higher risk areas, for example. This may also mean 3 quotes are not always sought either…(but just between us).

As a supplier, this creates an opportunity, if you are able to offer a service which is value for money, which does align to their needs and if it can also help their procurement concerns, even better! We cover this latter element further when looking into ‘framework maximisation’ and getting your share of a framework spend. We've produced a comprehensive guide to frameworks on our website, along with features and blogs on the most popular frameworks.

High-value contracts

High-value contracts are when full procurement rules apply, including advertising tenders in specific places, along with an award notice. The more formal tenders are associated with the public sector. Our free software Tender Pipeline allows you to monitor these and can be accessed here.

Below is a table detailing current (2023) public sector spend thresholds for requiring full formal procurement for high-value contracts:


Contract Type

Spend Threshold

Public Contracts



Public Contracts

Services and Supplies (Central Government Authorities)


Public Contracts

Services and Supplies (Other Public Sector Authorities)






Services and Supplies



Concession Contracts


Defence and Security



Defence and Security

Services and Supplies


For opportunities under this level, over the life of a contract, it is important to remember you will have increased flexibility and potential options.

Light Touch Regime

Some contracts fall under the Light Touch Regime (LTR), which also has added flexibility and higher spend thresholds, further increasing the opportunity without formal procurement. This is £663,54 (Public Contracts) and £884,720 (Utilities). This includes:

  • Health and social care services

  • Education and training services

  • Cultural and recreational services

  • Employment and vocational services

  • Social housing services

  • Legal services

  • Architectural and engineering services

  • Financial and insurance services

  • IT and telecommunications services

  • Research and development services

  • Consulting and advisory services

When a public sector buyer uses the Light Touch Regime to procure services, there are three key differences compared to the standard procurement processes. These differences impact the procurement process and create opportunities for suppliers:

Increased flexibility:

  • Under the Light Touch Regime, public sector buyers have more flexibility in designing and conducting their procurement processes. They have the freedom to adapt procedures to suit the specific needs of the project, taking into account factors such as complexity, urgency, and market conditions

  • This increased flexibility allows buyers to tailor the procurement process to encourage competition, innovation, and efficiency. It provides an opportunity for suppliers to propose creative solutions and demonstrate their capabilities beyond strict compliance with predetermined requirements

Streamlined procedures:

  • The Light Touch Regime promotes more streamlined and simplified procurement procedures compared to the more formal processes required for higher-value contracts

  • Buyers have the option to use less burdensome documentation, such as requesting simplified qualification information or reducing the number of evaluation criteria

This streamlined approach can save time and resources for both buyers and suppliers, making it easier for smaller businesses or specialised service providers to participate and win public sector contracts

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A ‘risk-based approach’ to procurement for stretched public sector procurement

In the UK, many public sector bodies, including government departments, local authorities, and other public entities, often face challenges due to limited procurement capacity. As a result, they are required to adopt a risk based approach to procurement, prioritising certain aspects of the process to ensure effective procurement outcomes. This situation creates opportunities for suppliers during the sales process

Simplified procurement procedures

Public sector bodies with limited procurement capacity may simplify their procurement procedures to reduce administrative burdens and streamline the process. This can include using pre-approved frameworks or dynamic purchasing systems that allow for quicker and more straightforward procurement. We explain what dynamic purchasing systems are, and their benefits for suppliers, here.

Suppliers who are part of these frameworks or systems have an advantage as they are already vetted and can participate in procurement exercises more easily. They also have the opportunity to market their ‘pre-approved’ and procurement compliant solutions to the public sector who could use these frameworks. We detail this further in the framework maximisation section below.

Non-compliant public sector purchases and off-contract spend

Through traditional sales and marketing but targeted at the needs of the public sector, suppliers can generate sales which exceed procurement rules. These can be consciously approved by the public sector body, being conscious of a lack of options due to time constraints, budget or capacity. Or they can happen as a result of lack of procurement expertise or control within the organisation, providing little control over suppliers and buying decisions.

How will understanding public sector challenges increase your sales?

Understanding a public sector buyer before selling to them is crucial for success. By gaining a deep understanding of their challenges, priorities, and `hot buttons’, you can tailor your approach and demonstrate your expertise effectively. This understanding not only reassures the buyer but also allows you to position your solution, product, or service as the best fit for their needs.

It is this information and understanding which should generate your specific sales and marketing campaigns into the public sector to maximise your lead generation activity and conversion rates. For details on whether you need a public sector marketing strategy, see our article here.

Here are some key reasons why understanding a public sector buyer is important:

  • Addressing specific challenges - each public sector organisation faces unique challenges, whether it's budget constraints, regulatory compliance, or delivering high quality services to the community. By understanding these challenges, you can align your offering with their specific pain points and showcase how your solution can help overcome those challenges

  • Tailoring your value proposition - public sector buyers want to see how your solution addresses their specific needs and delivers added value. By understanding their priorities, you can customise your value proposition to highlight the benefits that matter most to them. This tailored approach increases the chances of resonating with the buyer and differentiating yourself from competitors

  • Building trust and credibility - when you showcase your knowledge about their sector, regulations, and challenges, it builds trust and credibility. They are more likely to see you as a reliable partner who can provide solutions that are well-suited to their ‘unique’ requirements

  • Positioning your solution effectively - you can highlight how your product or service specifically addresses their pain points, complies with regulations, enhances efficiency, or improves service delivery. This targeted positioning enhances your chances of success during the sales process

Below we have provided some common public sector challenges and examples of complimentary supplier offers:

Budget constraints

  • Provide cost-effective solutions, innovative financing options, and efficiency-improving technologies to help optimise budget use

Affordable housing shortage

  • Offer innovative construction methods, energy-efficient solutions, and affordable housing initiatives to address the housing shortage

Educational attainment

  • Provide tailored educational programs, digital learning tools, and student support services to improve educational outcomes

Skills gap

  • Offer vocational training programs, apprenticeship opportunities, and industry partnerships to bridge the skills gap and enhance employability

Collaboration and governance challenges

  • Provide centralised management systems, collaboration tools, and governance frameworks to streamline operations and ensure effective governance

Emergency response

  • Supply advanced communication systems, emergency response technologies, and training programs to enhance emergency preparedness and response

Healthcare demand

  • Provide healthcare management solutions, telehealth technologies, and patient engagement tools to improve service delivery and patient care

How do you increase engagement with public sector buyers and decision-makers?

A consistent mix of marketing will increase opportunities and conversions. These activities include:

  • Tailored campaigns

  • Content Marketing

  • Thought leadership

  • Social media

  • White papers

  • Events & conferences

  • Webinars & workshops

  • Case studies & testimonials

  • Targeted advertising

  • Public sector partnerships

  • Referral programmes

  • Direct mail

  • Email marketing

  • Telemarketing

When tailoring your public sector marketing plan and sales activities you should:

  • Understand the public sector landscape - including the different organisations, decision-making processes, and regulations. This knowledge will help you align your marketing approach with the unique requirements of the public sector

  • Highlight public sector expertise (where possible) - emphasise your experience and expertise in working with public sector clients or those with similar needs. Showcase relevant case studies, success stories, and testimonials to demonstrate your understanding of public sector challenges and your ability to deliver effective solutions

  • Address compliance and regulation – highlight how your products or services comply with their standards and communicate how you meet these requirements effectively. This will provide reassurance and build trust with potential buyers

  • Focus on value for money - highlight the cost-effectiveness, long-term benefits, and return on investment of your offerings. Provide evidence of cost savings, efficiency gains, and positive outcomes that can be achieved by working with your business

  • Demonstrate social value - highlight your company's commitment to social value and sustainability. Public sector organisations are increasingly prioritising social, environmental, and economic benefits in their procurement decisions. Provide examples of how your company has made a positive impact in these areas.

  • Tailor messaging to public sector priorities - such as improving service delivery, reducing costs, enhancing sustainability, or addressing broader issues. Align your marketing messages to address these priorities and emphasise how your solutions can help meet their specific needs. Often by looking at how their performance is evaluated and offering solutions specifically to help with these can show both an insight of the sector and a route for support

  • Build relationships and trust - engage in networking events, attend industry conferences, and establish connections with key decision makers. Leverage your existing relationships and references within the public sector to enhance your credibility and gain a competitive advantage

  • Leverage public sector frameworks - familiarise yourself with public sector procurement frameworks and contracts. Being part of these frameworks can enhance your visibility and streamline the procurement process for public sector buyers. We have a specific section of our website dedicated to public sector frameworks, which includes specific opportunities by sector, along with top tips, which can be found here. We further detail in this article, how to increase your sales via a framework

  • Collaborate with partners - this can help you access new opportunities, leverage their existing relationships, and provide a more comprehensive solution to public sector buyers

  • Be patient and persistent: sales cycles in the public sector can be longer compared to the private sector, especially for high value contracts. Be patient and persistent in your approach, as it may take time to build relationships, navigate procurement processes, and secure contracts. Maintain consistent communication and follow-up to stay at the front of the mind of potential buyers

  • Stay updated on public sector trends – including policy changes and initiatives within the public sector. This will enable you to tailor your marketing strategy accordingly and position your offerings as relevant and aligned with emerging needs

  • Tailoring social media, emails & direct mail - identify the social media platforms and channels that are popular among the public sector audience. LinkedIn is often an effective platform for engaging with public sector professionals. Positioning yourself or your business as a thought leader requires relevant content, focusing on topics such as public policy, legislation, compliance, sustainability, cost-efficiency, and social impact. Provide informative and valuable content that educates and engages the public sector audience. Providing valuable resources, such as white papers, case studies and success stories, or reports, that address the specific concerns and priorities of the public sector. It is important to engage in conversations and actively participate. Visual content, such as infographics, videos, and images, into your social media campaign can prove effective and increase engagement

  • Tailoring your networking and telemarketing - the public sector operates with high levels of professionalism and adherence to protocols. Highlight how your offering aligns with their goals and objectives, addresses their challenges, and delivers tangible benefits and outcomes. Listen actively, and understand the stakeholders' perspectives and priorities. Foster trust and credibility by demonstrating your expertise and track record in delivering successful solutions. Be transparent about your offerings, pricing, and terms

  • Collaborate on pilot projects - offer to collaborate on pilot projects (which create flexibility in the procurement process) or initiatives to demonstrate your capabilities and value. This can help establish trust and credibility with public sector organisations. For example, an IT company may offer a pilot project to improve digital services for a local Council

  • Engage with procurement teams - develop relationships with procurement teams to understand their needs, processes, and upcoming opportunities. Attend procurement related events and offer to provide information or training sessions on procurement best practices

  • Build partnerships - collaborate with other suppliers to form strategic partnerships. This allows you to offer a comprehensive solution and demonstrate a strong track record of delivering successful projects. For example, an engineering company could partner with an environmental consultancy to provide integrated solutions to public sector infrastructure projects

  • Provide training and education - offer training sessions or workshops on industry-specific topics to public sector employees. This demonstrates your expertise, fosters relationships, and positions your company as a trusted advisor

  • Engage with Local Authorities - establish relationships with local authorities by attending Council meetings, joining local business associations, and engaging in community initiatives. This can lead to valuable insights and networking opportunities

  • Participate in supplier forums - join supplier forums or engagement sessions organised by public sector organisations. These forums provide an opportunity to understand their requirements, ask questions, and showcase your solutions. Often known as ‘meet the buyer’ events.

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It's important to note that the effectiveness of these strategies may vary depending on the specific sector, your competition and the unique needs of public sector organisations. Keeping abreast of market trends, understanding client requirements, and tailoring your approach accordingly is crucial for successful engagement with the public sector. For this reason, we recommend regularly reviewing your public sector sales and marketing strategy.

How marketing to the public sector can help to increase bid win rates for formal tenders

For many organisations who bid regularly for high-value public sector tenders, they want to maximise their win rates and return on investment. The bidding process can be time-consuming and costly.

As a result, many businesses complete a bid/no bid assessment. This often crucial process evaluates whether to submit a bid for a particular opportunity or not. It involves considering various factors to make an informed decision and allocate resources effectively. One of the key considerations in a bid/no bid assessment is the organisation's ‘relationship with existing stakeholders’.

This relationship, often with the buyer, can be critical. It will impact bid decisions and success rates. This consideration involves evaluating the level of familiarity, trust, and rapport established with the client organisation.

We hear from many clients that they simply do not bid if they do not have a relationship with the public sector buyer. This could be a sensible decision when trying to maximise your bid win rates, but it vastly reduces your opportunities and is very restrictive when it comes to business growth. You need to look at how you can systematically build these relationships and therefore increase the number of tenders you can bid for, with a higher chance of success.

Building relationships with key decision-makers in the public sector can take time, and consistent effort, so needs an effective strategy to maximise where your effort goes. It requires capacity to network, attend industry events, participate in meetings, and build trust. This time investment may not always align with immediate business growth goals.

How do you maximise your framework opportunities?

Frameworks are approved and compliant public sector supplier lists. They have been largely pushed as a solution to allow the public sector to procure services more efficiently. As buyers have common requirements, if they set up regional and national approved agreements with key suppliers, they can save time and money.

There are now thousands of these frameworks. Often frameworks or dynamic purchasing systems can be more accessible for suppliers. You can become approved quicker and often with higher chances of success. Thornton & Lowe has a success rate well in excess of 90% for frameworks, which includes some of the most competitive frameworks in the UK.

However, getting onto a framework is often only the start. When looking at framework maximisation, or getting your fair share (or unfair share) of a framework, sales, marketing and engagement is critical. A framework has to be worked! A framework award is not a chance to relax. It is a chance to push, to engage with buyers, key decision-makers in the public sector and to work your wider sales skills, beyond the bid and tender. In this article, we further focus on how to use framework agreements as a route for sales, which can be found here.

Approved suppliers need to understand:

  • Framework marketing rules

  • Wider public sector procurement rules

  • Public sector challenges

To then:

  • Create compelling campaigns

  • Generate leads

  • Build relationships

  • Explain to these public sector leads how they can compliantly use your services via the framework. In many cases, what they need to do to make a ‘direct award’ (no further competition)

  • Win new business

Thornton & Lowe can help you bid, yes. The key, however, is that we help your business grow. This includes framework maximisation and wider public sector sales and marketing support. Your public sector sales and marketing strategy and activities listed above, work even better when you are already approved on relevant public sector frameworks.

The sales structure of successful public sector suppliers

A successful public sector-focused company typically has well-defined sales, marketing, and bid structures in place to effectively and consistently engage with the sector and secure contracts.

Typically they have the following roles, whether in-house or outsourced:

Public Sector Sales Manager/Director – who lead the sales team and develop the overall sales strategy for targeting the public sector market. They are responsible for identifying opportunities, building relationships with key stakeholders, and driving business growth

Business Development Managers - focus on prospecting and developing new business opportunities within the public sector. They identify potential projects, engage with clients, and promote the company's capabilities

Key Account Managers - manage existing public sector client relationships, ensuring client satisfaction, identifying upsell opportunities, and maintaining long-term partnerships

Public Sector Marketing Manager - develops and executes marketing strategies tailored to the public sector market. They create targeted campaigns, develop marketing materials, manage online presence, and participate in industry events to raise brand awareness

Content Writers - produce high-quality content such as case studies, thought leadership articles, and project profiles that demonstrate the company's expertise and value proposition to the public sector

Digital Marketing Specialists - manage online platforms, social media accounts, and digital advertising campaigns to reach and engage with public sector stakeholders effectively

Bid Manager - leads the bid team and manages the end-to-end bid process for public sector contracts. They collaborate with various internal departments and external partners to develop winning proposals

Bid Writers/ Coordinators/Administrators - support to the bid manager in coordinating and organising bid activities, content creation, ensuring timely submission, and maintaining bid documentation. To see our bid writing solution, click here

Technical Experts - work closely with the bid team to provide technical expertise during the bid process. They contribute to solution design, cost estimation, and compliance with project requirements

Pre-construction or Pre-sales Manager (sector dependent) - coordinates pre-construction activities, including initial project assessment, feasibility studies, and cost planning. They liaise with clients, architects, and other stakeholders to ensure smooth project initiation

Estimators (sector dependent) - prepare accurate cost estimates and pricing for public sector projects based on project specifications, scope, and industry benchmarks

Legal and Contracts Team - provide legal expertise in contract negotiations, review procurement documentation, ensure compliance with regulations, and mitigate legal risks

Operations and Project Management - collaborate closely with the sales and bid teams to ensure successful project delivery once contracts are secured

This level and depth of structure is not available for most SME businesses. So how can you maximise your sales in this sector?

Your public sector sales, marketing & bid solution with Thornton & Lowe

Thornton & Lowe has developed outsourced business solutions targeted at SMEs looking to grow their businesses in the public sector. These include:

  • Bid & framework research, administration, writing, design, training, management and consultancy solutions. Our outsourced partnership model offers clients a lower-cost solution than traditional recruitment but with a consistent, high-performing team. For further details click here

  • Sales, marketing and engagement solutions for relationship building and framework maximisation. For further details click here

  • Award writing to help create evidence of your performance and discriminate yourselves, which you can use in your marketing and bids. Further details can be found here

  • Tender Pipeline, which is our free solution for finding tenders and frameworks, and monitoring competitor wins. Further details can be found here

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