Procurement proposals could shake up how colleges go to tender


7 Feb 2021, 5:00

adult education budget

There are many more freedoms – but also more scrutiny – in the government’s new procurement proposals that would affect how colleges go to tender, write Ben McGirr and Toshif Vally

You’d be forgiven for not noticing that in December, the Cabinet Office published a green paper called Transforming Public Procurement. The three-month open consultation is part of an attempt to move public procurement away from its EU roots and towards a more UK-driven national law.   

Under it, colleges could get more freedom and control about how they contract for cleaning, catering, building and other services, thereby helping your bottom line. But it could come with more transparency strings attached too, so do watch out. 

Under the proposed changes, first of all there will be more flexibility on running tenders. At the moment, there are multiple ways you can go to tender, and most colleges will only ever encounter one, which is a normal ‘open’ tender. 

The second most common route is designed for handling a very large anticipated number of bids and involves shortlisting. All other routes tend to involve lawyers for complex negotiations, or relate to very complicated requirements.

Three new tender routes

Instead of all these different prescribed routes to tender, there would be just three streamlined ways. 

The first way would just be a normal open tender, as now. This is a standard tender which currently stays out for a minimum of 30 days and you must take the bid at face value, with whoever scores highest in the tender getting the contract. Strictly speaking, colleges can’t negotiate the price set out by bidders. 

The second way would be a new competitive, flexible route, which increases a college’s ability to negotiate. Essentially the government is suggesting you can set your own rules on what the tender looks like. They will establish some minimum requirements, but they haven’t gone into more detail on what these might be yet.  

Under these suggestions, a college could set its own timeline for how long or short the tender is out, meaning that for a smaller purchase you could close the tender after a couple of weeks, rather than having to keep it open for a longer period. 

The third route would, under limited circumstances, allow colleges to avoid a full tender, an option which has emerged from the Covid crisis. If you can justify a need to purchase ASAP, such as the urgent need to buy PPE, then you wouldn’t necessarily need to tender.

But be warned that if you went down this route, your college would have to be very transparent about why you did so. We expect there to more detailed guidance on when this would apply.

‘Social values’ and new database

Aside from these three routes, the government is also suggesting that buyers such as colleges can consider social value – and not necessarily have to award to the lowest bid. So a scored question on the tender might ask how social values can be achieved. The bidders might say they’ll offer some apprenticeships or environmental work. 

This move would make it easier for colleges to spot the really poor performers.  

Government guidance will probably set out which sectors are obligated and which are encouraged to take this social consideration.  

Interestingly, the green paper also suggests a national database that would display bidders’ poor performance in previous contracts. At the moment, you are very limited in whether you can discount bidders based on poor performance in the past, to protect against biases. But this move would make it easier for colleges to spot the really poor performers.  

Other suggestions include buyers being allowed to reopen bids at set dates under pre-existing agreements, which are known as frameworks, if they wish to.

New procurement transparency demands

But the biggest thing colleges should take note of is the new transparency proposal. There would be an enhanced obligation for buyers to publish evaluation reports for every tender, showing all their scores and notes.  

At the moment, a lot of colleges probably don’t go into sufficient detail on this. It will mean a higher workload for those not accustomed to this careful evaluation method.  

The consultation period will end on March 10, 2021 and changes would arrive in the next 12 to 18 months. So those in FE looking to buy should keep their eyes peeled.

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