Winning business in the public sector

Posted by on Nov 21, 2013 in Blog, Civil Society, Funding, Innovation, Rants

By Kevin Baughen

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for the Guardian website about how small organisations were struggling to even be considered to deliver local, public services in spite of the Big Society initiative claiming this was all going to change…

Have you seen any evidence of change since then?  We’re genuinely interested at Achill Management in the kinds of organisations that are perceived to be appropriate to deliver public contracts but who aren’t Serco or Group 4 (and they still win contracts despite unbelievable behaviour!).

Why?  Because it’s these organisations that stand a much greater chance of being genuinely resilient in the short and medium term future.  And that’s something we can all learn from.

The unfortunate thing is I don’t know of many organisations like this.  The considerable majority of anecdotes I hear and reports I see still tell the story of smaller but hugely capable and relevant organisations being precluded from delivering services they would be successful at, for arbitrary reasons.  Here’s just a few that are still around in public sector contracts:

  • Disproportionate levels of insurance and liability cover required for lower value financial contracts (my favourite is from Wales for winninga copywriting tender worth under £5000 which required £1 million professional indemnity cover – premiums of over £2000)
  • Entry level financial turnover requirements being set at upwards of £500,000 for much lower value contracts (but thankfully this seems to be more unusual in 2013)
  • A weighting in the financial selection criteria that, in spite of paragraphs to the contrary, still focuses more on finding the lowest cost option, not the best option
  • And my personal bug-bear… the tender that in one section demands that the solutions suggested must be innovative and forward looking but in the next, demands that the tendering parties must evidence a track record of doing the same work elsewhere.  Multiple times.  How can you suggest new and innovative solutions and show proof that they’ve worked elsewhere?!?

A number of cooperative organisations have tried to bring together networks capable of overcoming some of these hurdles but – as a member via two independent entities – I’m just not seeing the rubber hit the road here.  If you have any evidence to the contrary, please do share it!

This seeming lack of progress to support a third sector that wants and needs to be more self-sufficient is baffling at best and alarming at worst.  It should not be this hard to get the people closest to the issues AND best qualified to deliver local solutions effectively to actually do so.  But moaning about it isn’t going to help so what can organisations looking to engage with programmes funded by the public purse actually do?

I believe that the practical answers will be specific to each organisation but they will all likely find their roots in the same core principles:

  1. Being more productive in terms of delivering high quality outcomes (not outputs) with limited resources.  It’s a cliché but thinking differently about how we work not just working harder is key to being more productive.
  2. In line with the above, focusing on what success means and marshalling resources, energy and ideas accordingly.  This means thinking clearly about how it can be measured and what it takes specifically to deliver it.  And for the smart organisations, how to turn planned success into marketing leverage and brand credibility.  Too many organisations equate doing lots of things with being successful; sometimes driven by the need to chase funding across a range of projects which may not reflect their core competences.  Being clear about our direction enables us to focus on tangible and more impactful outcomes ie; real, measurable and marketable success.
  3. Repeat the above 2-stage cycle and we build resilience in our organisations.  OK I’m over-simplifying as a lot of factors constitute to our collective resilience but focusing on the above, learning and adapting our approach accordingly, over time, will give our organisations a greater chance of being sustainable.

So perhaps like everything ‘Big Society’, we actually have to help ourselves to help others help themselves…  creating a defined plan to ensure our own organisational resilience is a great place to start.  Having to rely less on public contracts and/or being better placed to evidence the track record required to win them has to be a great place to be, no?

Kevin is a core member of the Achill Management team. Get in touch to share your ideas…