Bidding for public sector contracts

With new rules coming into force on the government contract playing field, SMEs need to rethink how to tackle tendering in this lucrative sector. Sally Collier, chief executive of the Crown Commercial Service, offers some insider insights to potential bidders

1. Take every chance to seize the day

Collier says: “We’re open for business – particularly when it comes to smaller firms. Right from the coalition agreement, it was decreed that more business should go to small firms, because they’re more flexible, and can offer better value for money and more innovative solutions.

That’s why so many measures we’ve introduced benefit smaller companies, which don’t have the resources to power through all the old red tape. More measures are coming into effect later this year. So, just because you bid unsuccessfully for a government contract five years ago, it really shouldn’t put you off. We spend hundreds of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on buying goods and services from third parties – so there’s a lot of opportunity.”

2. Know what you are looking for

“You might think that sounds a bit obvious, but it’s so important. The primary way to find out what’s available and what’s coming up is the web portal called Contracts Finder ( We’re in the process of revamping it, so it’s got a super user interface that will be available shortly, but already it lists all central government contracts worth over £10,000, and quite a number of non-central government ones too.

“The reforms coming in later this year will ensure all public contracts are advertised on the site. You need to study this primary source and ask yourself things like, ‘What’s my scale of opportunity? Am I large or small scale? What resources do I have to put into these opportunities? What am I in the market for? What are my top six priorities? Is the location right? Do I want to expand to neighbouring counties – or right across the country?'”

3. Be part of the conversation

“If nobody knows who you are, your ability to win a bid is going to be diminished. Get out there, make contacts and speak to them regularly. Most central departments now have contact details on their websites. And, there was a competition last year to find out the top 10 councils to do business with – check it out on Your competitors will be armed with this kind of information, and will have these relationships – you need to be on an equal footing.”

4. Play to your strengths

“Small firms offer more innovation, more appreciation of customers’ problems, more willingness to go above and beyond. All of those strengths need to come through in all your interactions, right from the pre-market engagement. Accordingly, when you’re being scored as a tender, you should treat it like an exam: do your homework, work out what people marking it want to see, and write out some notes and questions. Some marks which we give in the tender evaluation process are mandatory, others discretionary: if you fail a mandatory mark – which you will if you don’t fill the form in – you’ll be eliminated. We have audit trails – ‘We had 12 first bids, here were their scores and why’ – and in order to have that we need the answers on bits of paper.”

5. Get feedback – and give it, too

Actually, demand feedback! We won’t just tell you that you scored 70 and someone else scored 80 – that’s no use. Instead, we’ll tell you, in detail, about the winning bid and why it was successful. We look very favourably on these requests. In fact, win or lose, demand feedback – even if you’ve won; knowing the reason why can make future bids less of a lottery. Also, I hope people don’t end up using it, but we have a service called Mystery Shopper, whereby any bidder who thinks there’s poor practice going on can ring us and tell us about their experience. We’ve investigated over 600 cases so far – and in the majority of them we’ve made a change to the process accordingly.”

The Crown Commercial Service is a commercial and procurement service for government and the UK public sector

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