The person on the telephone sounds very young. I am stifling incredulity at her request. “You mean you want me to tender for this?” I ask.
Yes, she does. The work in question is a single two hour session to debrief a psychometric questionnaire. Briefly and dizzily I imagine the zillion page pre-qualification questionnaire asking questions about insurance and our equalities policy; then the vast invitation to tender document, only a few pages of which will contain the actual specification; the refusal to answer questions without circulating them in writing to all other bidders; the eventual beauty parade where a tired panel plods through its questions.
I politely say no.
I understand the theory behind tendering. It is meant as a bulwark against asking your auntie to supply your IT services, a commitment to transparency, to competitive prices and a way of challenging complacency in long standing suppliers.
Does it actually do this? I have been on both sides of this fence.
As a commissioner I quickly discovered that advertising a tender creates huge amounts of unproductive work. Courtesy demands acknowledging all bids, a rigorous selection process and proper feedback. All this ties up hours of your staff time and much disappointing effort for bidders.
Some organisations take the short cut: a few weeks ago we learned we had not been shortlisted because the client had solved this problem by drawing lots and we had been “unlucky”.
Some clients are innocent about what it costs to run an unsubsidised company. Others assume you are so overwhelmed by the privilege of working with them that you will work for derisory amounts. An acquaintance running a company of skilled craftsmen narrowly avoided bankruptcy when his firm was ruthlessly squeezed on price by a branch of the royal family.
Much tendering is immaculate: clear specifications and success criteria, a helpful person available to clarify what is needed and a request for a “work sample” - the fairest way - and we have many times been beneficiaries of them.
But the costs of bidding are significant and have to be recovered somehow. This leads to higher, not lower, prices - and competitors can resort to dubious tactics. We were recently the target of what was probably predatory pricing: a company which sneaked up to a client, having been leaked privileged information, and hissed that they could deliver the same service for a lower price. We can be pretty certain that if awarded this contract, which they were not, their fees would quickly have risen to exceed ours.
Tendering favours bigger organisations that can dedicate teams to proposals. It can cut out the smaller, more flexible, potentially cheaper providers. And if tendering is so wonderful, how come we have those impeccably tendered public sector projects which are millions overspent and years behind schedule?