People & Performance – February 2001 issue                                            back to articles menu

“A Tender Moment – but worth the effort?”

‘Open the pod-bay door, Hal…’ in the 1968 movie ‘2001’, Arthur C. Clark illustrated a future that is in most aspects already here, in other aspects so close you can almost touch it. So much change. Yet in some organizations, it appears the changes have gone by unnoticed. The tendering process for Government/Local Authority work is one such example…


This is the first time in a Punter article that I am asking for feedback through People & Performance. I hope you don’t mind if I let a little exasperation show, if I confess I don’t have the answers. I want to see what others think. Let’s have a Forum!

Normally, I approach the proposal-writing process with enthusiasm and gusto (except when I have procrastinated and am under pressure to produce). I enjoy the creative element of designing a proposal that will be interesting, exceed the brief, and be competitive. Obviously, the proposals that are accepted give me the most joy. But there’s one type of proposal that I have, over time, come to feel quite negative about. That’s the Tender documents coming from Government and some Local Authorities. “Why is this? (I hear you ask) – surely Government work is secure and well-paid!”

Firstly, let me say that we have never, in ten years, successfully tendered for Government or Local Government work (we’ve done a fair amount of Government work, but not through the tender process). I have no idea what your experience of the tender process has been, but I can only describe my experience to date as ‘pointless, soul-destroying, a tedious waste of time and money’. Let me give you some examples so that those of you who’ve never tendered before will understand what I’m talking about (and be warned), and those who have tendered may identify with my experiences.

Just recently, we tendered for a major Government contract. The process usually requires an internal team meeting followed by a couple of days of fairly intense concentration whilst strapped into a keyboard. I estimate the actual cost of the process as at least $5000.00 when you include the opportunity-cost (not training for two days) plus the involvement of others and an apportionment of overhead. To put that in context, our Yellow Pages advertising costs not much more than that, lasts a whole year and actually generates revenue. Two weeks later, the expected ‘no thanks’ letter turned up. Even more frustratingly, you have no idea why the tender was not successful, and there’s (usually) no way of finding out. Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of ‘digging’ through unofficial channels, and uncovered some details about two other recent tenders, and I’ll share that news with you…

In the first case, a government department gave us an RFP (i.e. they approached us) for a fairly comprehensive Team Leader training programme. Three of us spent a weekend putting it together. After two months of waiting, I rang them, to be told our proposal was not successful (were they ever going to let us know?) and no reason was given. This time I did a bit of ‘digging’, and turned up the startling fact that this Department had solicited RFP’s from 28 training organizations. That’s right, twenty-eight RFP’s. Let’s put that in context – 28 internal team meetings (presumably), and 28 people like me giving ‘x’ hours of time and energy. To what end? Where is the sense in that? 

Here’s a Health sector example. We’ve done lots of work in Health. This particular tender was for management level training and took three days to complete. The result? They chose an ex-nurse-turned-consultant since she would ‘better understand the context’. It seems she didn’t have to put a tender in. One wonders whether the tender process was simply a compliance exercise and that the decision had already been made. Hush my mouth… Good on her for getting the work – I have no idea where she got her workshop content from, what her practical management experience and qualifications in adult education might be, if any. I don’t think we’ll bother tendering again in Health. Once again, all our work in Health comes through a proposal process direct from the people who need the work done, who know what they want and what they’re looking for in a service provider, and where you know you’re up against three or four other professional contenders. A one in four chance is worth giving up a couple of days for. A one in twenty-eight chance is not worth the effort and in my opinion the Wally who perpetrated that piece of supreme idiocy should be taken out the back and shot, or as a minimum charged by the Police with creating a public nuisance… And now for the latest example. Just before Christmas (a few days before we closed on the 24th Dec) we received tender documents for a large and complex job from a Govt Department. Normally, you have at least a month to respond. However, I take the blame for not spotting the closing date of 12th January. Now, if you’re a new employee or you’ve used all your holidays, you will be working over Christmas & New Year.  I guess it never occurred to the person organising the tender that 95% of the population are not in that situation and do take holidays, and that probably half the working population would not return to work until the 15th January… Unluckily I returned to work on the 8th, along with my faithful PA since the rest of the team luxuriate in not being the Boss and can swan around at the beach and things. That’s when I spotted the closing date. So guess what I was doing (under a fair bit of pressure) in order to make the deadline… and for what? The standard two-line ‘no thanks’ letter. Who the hell is getting this work? Is the work going to serious training providers with a depth of experience and integrity? If so, we would know on the grapevine. Maybe you’re thinking ‘Well Punter, if you don’t want the frustration, don’t do the Tenders’ and I can understand that response, but think a bit wider for a minute. Let’s presume our team are competent people and do provide a quality service with a degree of integrity through the NZQA process, and at a mid-range cost. If enough people like us stop bothering with the tender process, doesn’t that mean that sooner or later the only people responding to tenders will be those who’ve got nothing better to do with their time, or are desperate for work? Is the Customer going to be happy with the quality they get? Do they know they difference – or is price the only issue? We will never be able to compete on price alone with lone-wolf individuals, neither are we interested in competing with retired teachers prepared to work for peanuts. I have an ethical, esteem and commercial issue with the concept of tendering at a lesser price than you would charge normally. Using that method you can secure a lot of work and be extremely busy, as you quietly go broke. So! What do you think? What have your experiences been? Is there a reader among P&P’s audience who organises Government / Local Authority tenders, and who might like to educate us all from their reality? I’ve only spoken from my point of view, and I’m the first to admit that mine is not the only truth. For now, I’ll continue applying precious and expensive resources to items that have some realistic chance of providing a payback. I hope the person who sent out 28 RFP’s reads this, but somehow, I doubt he/she would be among P&P’s readership. It is, after all, a Journal for professionals. I will now put my hard-hat on and await incoming fire. Either write direct to the Editor (Kevin Day) at Box 44239 Lower Hutt, or email me and I’ll collate and forward the responses. Honest!

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email:
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author                                                                                                                                                                   back to articles menu