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Ten top tips for winning public procurement work

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Housing development consultant Claire Bennie advises architects on the best way to tackle tricky selection questionnaires

Public sector procurement is a needlessly cumbersome activity as everyone reading this article knows. There are various moves to effect change, both from the supplier side (architects like Russell Curtis bang a consistent drum) and from the buyer side (check out Bloom if you haven’t already).

But this is a slow-paced evolution, set back in recent times by a very understandable client fear of choosing suppliers (be they builders, architects or cleaners) that might collapse or make a major error.

It’s even harder for small organisations (including most architectural practices) to prove their competence under these circumstances. The only path to reform is for architects and public clients to work this through together, listening to one another and understanding each other’s risks and culture.

To that end, I’ve been working with a couple of councils to simplify their procurement documents so they suit architects better, and to consider running separate SME panels. I’m then hoping to listen to and work with far more developing councils through a possible collaboration with the Local Government Association.

But change will take a while to achieve, so I’m here to tell you how to answer tricky SQs (selection questionnaires) properly – however inelegant they are – because they’re a common way into public housing work right now. Here are my top 10 tips: 

1 Talk about your prospective client
This is the most important point and the one almost invariably overlooked. Research them. Get under their skin. Find out their mission and values. Visit their buildings and communities. Your SQ response is not all about you; it’s about showing how you are uniquely skilled to help your client achieve their aims.

Many submissions simply answer a slightly different question to the one asked. This results in a low score

2 Read the question five times
Get into a ‘school exam’ mindset. The question may be ambiguously phrased or confusing or use terms you don’t understand, but the client has a reason for asking it. Markers see many submissions where the candidates (even some of the big and reputable ones) simply answer a slightly different question to the one asked. This results in a low score which, in a competitive environment, you just can’t afford.

3 Ask for clarifications early
It’s not a problem to raise queries, but do it when you know all the queries you want to ask; you are already ‘on show’ to your client and all contacts are noticed. Read all of the clarification questions and answers from others – even right at the end of the SQ process. Those responses to others’ questions might tell you that you’ve misunderstood a question.

4 Make it easy for your markers to give you points
Use absolutely all the subheadings they give you and respond precisely to these. Use bullets and/or clear paragraph breaks. If there aren’t any subheadings, make them yourself so it’s very easy for the markers to see what you think the issues are.

5 Get the basics right
Use spellcheck and then find someone in your office who will spot the other typos. And for goodness sake spell ‘principal designer’ correctly (you aren’t designing principles). Lay your document out elegantly and send as a PDF to be absolutely sure it will look clear when opened.

6 Include pictures
Unless you are expressly told not to. They speak a thousand words. Make sure your pictures have people in them; that’s who your buildings are for.

7 Use up all of the word/page allowance
While the markers all, in theory, prefer a shorter read, some markers will think you haven’t got enough information if you skimp. If they’ve asked for 2 sides of A4, they believe that there is that much to say.

8 Use an authentic tone of voice
I can tell you that after the 63rd SQ, markers don’t want to read any more management jargon. I don’t mean go completely freestyle; I just mean ‘be engaging’. Talk to them like they’re human. Tell them about a mistake or a misapprehension you had on a project, and what you did about it. No more motherhood and apple pie.

9 Stand out
If someone’s looking at 80 SQs, what will they see in yours? What’s your USP? Why are you perfectly suited to this client?

10 Consider whether to submit
If you aren’t ready as a practice yet, you don’t have quite enough time to fill in the SQ perfectly, or you want to do housing but can’t quite prove you can just yet, then don’t enter. Your submission will be remembered by the markers. 

Claire Bennie is director of housing development consultancy Municipal

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