Be the talent in the competition for public sector contracts

Helen Marini, senior partner at Westminster Compliance LLP (in partnership with Inspire2Enterprise), talks to Ellie Ward about winning public sector contracts. The competition among organisations to win public sector contracts can be fierce. Social enterprises must make themselves stand out of the crowd by being organised, thoroughly prepared and by having unshakable self-belief. 

Pioneers Post: What is the best way to prepare before bidding for a public sector contract?

Helen Marini: The first thing you should do is to make sure you’ve got your business in order. You need to make sure that you’ve got all the right policies in place and that your turnover is high enough for you to bid for the contract. There are rules about how much turnover you must have before you can bid for contracts of a certain value. For example, if a contract is worth £100,000 a year, you need to have a turnover of at least £200,000 a year, but probably more like £300,000. 

There’s no point in wasting your time going for a contract if you haven’t got your business in order in the first place and if you haven’t got sufficient turnover. 

PP: Why might the pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) stage be challenging for a social enterprise?

HM: The PQQ is purely factual and looks at things like accounts to see if there are any nasty financial surprises in there. They also look at policies because they want to make sure an organisation is compliant with the laws that affect businesses. For example, this could be policies on health and safety, the environment, equalities, business continuity and those sorts of things. Data protection policy is also another important one.

PQQs are purely fact-finding filters. Social enterprises have to reach the pre-determined score on the PQQ before they can proceed to the tendering stage. At the tendering stage you can get down on paper what a fantastic organisation you are, which makes it easier for social enterprises to prove themselves. This is more challenging at the PQQ stage.

When it comes to pitching, think about what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you. 

PP: How can organisations get a competitive edge in the process by communicating their social impact to commissioners?

HM: Contracts are scored against an evaluation matrix and one of the scores will be: ‘What is the social impact that you have?’
Social enterprises that measure their social impact are going to be ahead of the game because this is now a requirement when applying for public sector contracts.  So, if any organisations are demonstrating SROI (Social Return on Investment) that’s going to be hugely helpful. If they’ve got some case studies, that’s also going to be good. Case studies must be brief and well written.

Organisations must make sure they don’t make any claims that they can’t back up with evidence because this is really important when it comes to bidding for public sector contracts. You must be able to back up everything you say. Evidence could be in the form of testimonials from clients or financial evidence, i.e. your accounts. Evidence also includes case studies, which are great because they are real, particularly if you use videos and photographs to bring them to life. An annual report could also be used.

PP: How can social enterprises make their pitch really stand out?

HM: If you are given directions with regard to the type of pitch you are to make, you must follow those directions. I’ve watched lots of pitches where I’ve seen people just brush aside the information and rules they’ve been given and just go for it, but they get knocked out straightaway.

Pitching has to be all about what's in it for the public sector organisation. If an organisation just goes along and talks about themselves and how fantastic they are, which is what 90 per cent of organisations do, they are just going to be like everybody else.
What they have to do is put themselves in the shoes of the people receiving the pitch. What is it that they want to hear? What’s in it for them? Because essentially if they recommend an organisation which then fails to deliver, they are going to have egg on their face. However, if they recommend somebody who turns out to be a fantastic supplier, it’s going to make them look good. When it comes to pitching, that’s the way to do it: think about what’s in it for them, not what’s in it for you. 

Pitching in the age of the Social Value Act

The 2013 Social Value Act was introduced just over a year and a half ago to open up more opportunities for social enterprises to deliver public services. It requires local authorities and other commissioners of public services to consider how their services can benefit people living in the local community.

PP: The 2013 Social Value Act has been welcomed by many but has also been met with scepticism. Some critics have said that commissioners have a lack of understanding about the public sector generally. What can you do to get the most out of it?

HM: I was actually training some commissioners last week and no, they don’t know much about public sector contracts. I would say that when it comes to winning contracts, I would scan all the tender requirement documents and the PQQs really carefully to see what reference they make in them, if any, to the Social Value Act.

If you’re going for an appropriate contract, there’s absolutely no reason why you should not be able to be competitive. 

Because this is now a legal requirement, there are spaces, both in the PQQ and in the Tender, where you can ask questions. So if you feel there’s not been enough credence or recognition given to the Social Value Act, then you can ask a question about it. All questions and all answers are shared with everybody bidding so it’s actually a really good thing to do. On the one hand it's going to frighten the life out of people who have done nothing at all about paying attention to the Social Value Act and you’re also going to get a proper answer because they are required to give one. 

PP: What advice do you give, considering the view held by some that many contracts are still out of reach for smaller organisations despite the introduction of the 2013 Social Value Act?

If you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.

HM: I don’t agree with this at all because it is simply not the case. If you’re going for an appropriate contract, and by that I mean one that is appropriate to your size and turnover, there’s absolutely no reason why you should not be able to be competitive. 

PP: Should smaller organisations pool their resources and form consortia to bid for bigger contracts?

HM: When it comes to going for larger contracts, yes consortia are welcomed but they double the amount of work required to win the contract. If people are thinking of forming a consortia in response to a contract opportunity that is out there now, my advice would be, unless you’ve got the people to throw at this, don’t bother.

What would be much more sensible is to start forming a consortium now for going for contracts in six months to a year's time. Getting a consortium right is tricky. It’s not impossible but it is tricky and needs to be done properly.

PP: What advice would you offer to a social enterprise bidding for a public sector contract for the first time?

HM: You have to have belief and you have to go for it. If you find yourself turning into an organisation who thinks, ‘It’s not for the likes of us’ or ‘We’ve got no chance against the big boys,’ then you won’t have a chance. There’s a quote by Henry Ford: ‘If you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right,’ and it is absolutely true. 

Pioneers Post Business School content is delivered in partnership with Inspire2Enterprise. Inspire2Enterprise provide a unique, free-to-access social enterprise support, information and advice service – from start-up through to initial growth and beyond. Call them on 0844 9800 760 or visit to find out more.

Photo credit: Victor Erixon, Unsplash.