This is an issue that’s vexed us for some years here, but having just seen the most ridiculous tender process we’ve ever come across, we really have to say something for the good of all. After all, if we ignore history, we are bound to repeat it.


Local authorities, now and again, buy e-consultation systems like Opinion Suite. All well and good. Some have pretty narrow requirements, and so provide fairly short briefs on what they want. These only need a fairly short response, saying “yes, we can do that, it costs x”. Some want larger systems, but are open to ideas as to the best approach being suggested by suppliers. Again, all well and good.


Some though, want you to write pages and pages and pages of response to them, something akin to the script for the Lord of the Rings. The director’s cut of it to boot.


We just had the largest one of these we’ve ever seen come in – 9 different documents totaling 58 pages and featuring (on a quick count) 298 separate questions to answer. Not just ‘yes/no’ ones either, but things like writing bespoke architecture diagrams and a project plan. You know, the sort of thing that’s actually best done once you’ve actually had a kick off meeting with a client.


Some similar tenders have seemed silly before, but this one really makes the ridiculousness of this sort of approach become all too apparent. Here’s why…


1. The project had been designed by committee, clearly. In a ‘functionality requirements’ specification, running to 135 different requirements, every possible e-participation tool under the sun had been thrown into the pot, some that even contradicted each other. There was no reference to how any of this will fit with internal process, what the actual user cases are for the functionality. Nothing, in essence, that is needed to have an online engagement project be successful. If the authority does end up with a system that complex, I’d be amazed if in practice even half of it got used in any meaningful way.


2. In addition to functionality, it had many and various IT requirements. Fine, you need to check your system’s going to meet legal accessibility requirements, and that the data it collects will be secure. Beyond that though, why would you need to ask if the system requires a web server? It’s an online consultation system. It’d be very impressive to see it operate without one.


The best bit was when it asked how the supplier would integrate with a sort of system that the authority may buy in the future, but which they haven’t chosen which one to buy yet, or even really investigated. What possible answer can you give to that in any sort of meaningful way?


3. The tender asked a good few questions about licensing and licenses. How much is one license, how much are additional licenses, etc? Standard for some suppliers, but an approach that implicitly rules out an open source approach, where the license cost is, erm, free. Setting out questions like this implicitly excludes the authority from taking a cheaper license free option.


Similarly it was shot through with references to other proprietary licensed software, including Microsoft. How do you answer a question about that when you don’t use proprietary software for your system?


4. Here’s the real kicker though. It would have taken us many, many person days to fill in all of the required information and send it back. But we sell open source software, which is designed to keep the cost as low as possible, largely charging just for the time of setting it up with minimal ongoing costs


So, when we looked at it, we worked out that, quite apart from the project looking like a confused jumble of ideas, we would actually have lost money on it whether we had won the tender or not, due to the amount of cost involved in just completing the tender itself compared with how much we charge.


We love what we do here, and we do it because we love it, but any business only gets to keep on going because it can cover its costs. Any supplier will want to see as many of their costs covered as possible obviously, so there’s another level to the madness of tendering like this. Quite apart from it cutting you off from the cheaper options on the market, you can be sure that whoever you do choose will want to see that they get the high cost of tendering back from you one way or another over time.


So, in essence, quite apart from the car crash of a project they may end up with, tendering like this authority just has means;


– they can’t buy the cheapest or most cost effective option

– they implicitly tie themselves in to ongoing license costs for no need

– they rack up higher costs on their side for the time required to process the masses of paperwork returned

– they then have a supplier that’s looking to recoup the high cost of tendering from them one way or another


An odd approach when local authorities are meant to be looking to save money anywhere they can these days.


As before, this post is meant in the spirit of benefitting everyone. We understand that sometimes it can seem like a tender process has to be done this way. But we’ve seen enough tenders for the same thing from other local authorities that have been done more simply and cost effectively to know that this sort of Heath Robinson approach isn’t as set in stone as it at first may seem.


It would be interesting to hear people’s thoughts and experiences around this area, as I suspect it’s going to become increasingly important as budgets get ever tighter.