The Chicken or the Egg?

One of the most demoralising ‘tender’ phrases to read, for any Small to Medium Enterprise (SME), must be ‘experience of delivering in similar contracts is required’. This raises the question of how SMEs are ever going to get the experience required when it becomes a pre-requisite of tendering?

We have been there several times ourselves, and have spent many days and weeks writing comprehensive tender bid documents, demonstrating our capabilities, our technical expertise and the quality of our people, only to be told that we scored highly in technical ability, but were let down by previous contract experience. This has been particularly true of the FCO/DFiD tenders.

The big ‘Primes’ continue to hoover up the contracts, brushing aside anyone who dares to try and compete, at times immediately sub-contracting the work straight out to the very SMEs who were not able to win the tender themselves.

So, would SMEs provide a better service? They would have a greater vested interest in providing an excellent service for a start, their livelihoods depend on it. They are more likely to remain in the office until midnight to solve the minor issues that crop up, or personally manage the delivery. Their customer service is likely to be personal, rather than corporate and the personnel will be known quantities, as opposed to ‘someone to fill a post’.

SMEs will be able to provide project specific expertise, knowledge based on experience in the respective field, and the ability to deliver across Strategic Aims, Operational Plans and Tactical Delivery.

Our experience of the big Primes is that they get so consumed in their own importance that they cannot accept that an SME can deliver any significant contribution. There is almost an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome that things are rosy on the programme, because they have to be, and anybody who suggests otherwise is just being negative. More credence apparently being given to which University their degree came from, rather than the problem solving that 30 years of operational experience can bring to the table.

Is the answer to work as part of a consortium with a Prime? Maybe, but what about those Primes who take everything they need for the bid, then cast the SME aside, and then contacting the people whose CVs they have included in the bid to work for them direct. It has happened to us, and others we know, with little or no redress.

Has the ASI ‘incident’ been a turning point for SMEs? Will the contracting authorities start to use SMEs more often? Let’s hope so.

Until then, unfortunately, the ‘Chicken and Egg’ situation around tendering and experience seems likely to continue.

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