Alert raised on the high volume of ‘tie-breaks’ in latest ESF tendering process

Further questions are being asked about the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s recent European Social Fund tender, after FE Week discovered an “unprecedented” amount of tie-breaks in the controversial procurement.

Many providers have alleged that the competition, worth around £282 million in total, was botched after the agency broke tender rules and made “errors”.

One aggrieved provider even threatened legal action, as revealed by FE Week last week, but has since decided to drop this because of the likely cost and a fear of repercussions from the ESFA.

It makes a mockery of the scoring process

Now, however, this newspaper has discovered, via a Freedom of Information request, that 37 of the 95 lots, or 39 per cent, tendered in the three competitive areas of the procurement resulted in a tie-break after the ESFA marked many bids as scoring the maximum.

One college director, who used to work at the ESFA and who wished to remain anonymous, told FE Week that the number is “unprecedented”.

“It makes a mockery of the scoring process, or demonstrates inexperienced scorers,” the director said.

“All the bidders will have scored the maximum 100 for each of the four questions to end up in a tie-break – [which is] unbelievable. And how come all these tie-breaks were resolved in an award? What’s the probability of that?”

In a tie-break, the bidders were asked to “respond to a single tie-break question”. Whoever the agency deemed to have scored the highest in this question would win.

Many of the tie-breaks included multiple organisations, and one lot, for the Sheffield Transition area, comprised five providers. Overall, 87 providers were involved.

FE Week’s FOI also showed that the ESFA employed four temporary staff, at a cost of £43,000 in total, as well as their full-time European Social Fund staff, to mark the bids.

“The use of temporary staff to mark these tenders is an insult to the providers, who spent weeks preparing their responses,” said the chief executive of a provider who bid in the tender but who did not want to be named.

“The FE Week findings prove that this wasn’t an open and competitive procurement process, given that such a high volume of providers with no infrastructure, resources or tangible track records in the specified regions were able to score 100 per cent and enter into tie-breaks in multiple contract package areas.”

He added that since the results were announced, three successful bidders have “approached us to deliver their newly won contracts as they have no capacity to deliver the contracts themselves”.

Each of the bidders had scored 200 out of 200 on their “readiness to deliver” the contract.

The chief executive said his provider understands that the ESFA is currently undertaking “penetration audits” to test the validity of what was written in the bids.

Another provider, who wished to remain anonymous, said they are “alarmed” by the tie-break figures and “think that the procurement has not been designed to capture the best provision locally”.

This wasn’t an open and competitive procurement process

“Over one-third of lots going to tie-break shows that not enough due diligence was carried out in analysing the accuracy of the responses,” this provider added.

“We are seeing this in the results of the awards, with, for example, providers that have no staff, infrastructure, supply chains and stakeholders in region [who] are not ready for the April 1 go-live date.”

The agency has delayed issuing contracts several times, since – as previously reported by FE Week – multiple providers claimed that the government broke tender rules, namely by excluding the “track record” section when marking bids, while the ESFA has admitted to “errors”, such as naming Serco Regional Services Limited as a winner instead of Serco Limited.Contracts are supposed to go live on April 1.

The European Social Fund is funding that the UK received, as a member state of the EU, to increase job opportunities and to help people to improve their skill levels, particularly those individuals who find it difficult to get work.

The three areas of the tender that had tie-breaks were “skills support for the workforce”, “skills support for the unemployed” and “skills support for NEET [Not in Education, Employment or Training]”.

The other part of the tender was for community grants, and it is understood there was only one application for each area, thus none resulted in a tie-break