From a former APS member: an apology to my ex (consultants)

By James Collett

March 29, 2019

In the wake of the major infrastructure projects underway in Australia, a former Australian Public Service staffer offers insightful and simple advice on how the procurement process could be improved for all parties involved… and avoid personal holidays being put on hold!

Recently, I watched some of my colleagues react with horror. They had just received a significant tender addendum from a government department, with only two days until tenders closed.

Even with everyone dropping what they were doing (no easy feat in itself), trying to adjust their tender response and get it through internal clearance processes in time was going to be nigh-on impossible.

Colleagues often ask me, based on my almost 18 years in the Australian Public Service, to interpret or explain the actions of government — sometimes that isn’t easy!

As I contemplated the numerous things that might have occurred at the departmental end, it made me realise I owed an apology to the many excellent consultants I had engaged over that time. Or more accurately, several apologies.

I like to think I was a pretty good public servant. But I didn’t know then what I do now about how these interactions look from the consultant end, and it made me less effective than I could have been.

Conversely, there’s lots that consultants still need to learn about the public sector — a topic for another time.

Numerous former colleagues have asked me what I’ve learned in moving to the private sector, and the many fine public servants I know are always looking for ways to improve.

So, here I share some things I could have done differently as a public servant, to achieve a better outcome for the public service, for their consultants and, ultimately, the communities we all serve.

Time is of the essence

If you can, give people more time to respond to your tender than you think they need.

Consultants seldom told me that the time I gave them to respond was inadequate. On rare occasions, they did ask for extensions. However, I now have an awareness of what it took for them to corral busy subject matter experts, get their heads around what the tender was asking for, crunch the numbers, and navigate internal clearance processes. I must have caused some late nights!

If you don’t provide sufficient time, you run the risk that some firms will end up not bidding, and that just reduces competition and, likely, value for money.

Timing matters

I wasn’t always as well informed as I should have been about how busy the market was when I put out tenders. If your tender lands when others are being responded to, both public (all levels of government) and private sector, then bid teams and subject matter experts might be thin on the ground at the consultant end. This again means an increased possibility of someone not bidding, but also risks lower-quality responses or increased costs as firms ‘price in’ the risk of misunderstanding your scope, due to the rushed process.

All of this is also true if you put out a tender at times when staff will be thin on the ground — think school and summer holidays. Without naming names, I’ve now seen from the private-sector-end the challenges created when a non-disclosure deed is issued on 21 December, to be returned by 3 January, for a select tender to be issued on 5 January.

(Though, to be fair, at least the tender closed early February in that case.)

Relationships matter

How do you know how busy the market is? Or whether you’re about to ask for a response when staff will be thin on the ground?

I was lucky to work very closely with several absolutely outstanding public service leaders. I won’t embarrass them by naming names, but I know you’ll be able to quickly identify a couple.

From them, I learned very early on that engaging with your suppliers professionally, but purposefully, was critical.

In hindsight, I could have done an even better job of finding out what the pressure points were for the consultants and firms that were providing me with support. I also could have worked harder to cultivate the kind of relationships where they were able to honestly tell me if they had too much on, were I to land another tender on them — it’s not an easy thing to say!

Look for diamonds in the rough

Okay, so the heading is a bit dramatic because it’s not really in the rough, but I realise now that I over-relied on firms to actively promote and communicate the services they provide. I under-appreciated how much some disciplines (like engineering for instance!) are populated with the kinds of people that might be great at their job, but not so strong at blowing their own trumpets, and that this might impact on the approach their company more broadly took. (Seems obvious when you read it, right?)

If you are just looking down a list of firms on a panel and going by reputation, media profile or things they’ve done for your department before, then you’re probably not providing optimal value to the taxpayer. It’s worth a little time to get yourself better informed about the different capabilities that the various firms have. Some of them might have been recently added.

Now, I know that panels of suppliers today can seem bigger than Ben Hur. The Infrastructure Advisory Services panel has more than 100 firms on it, and it’s not reasonable to ask you to become an expert in all their offerings.

That’s where those professionally managed relationships come in again, along with just a little bit more due diligence before you (or your staff) make some calls about who’s in and out of your select tender process.

READ MORE: New procurement policy published, suppliers must have a satisfactory tax record from July 1

Having good conversations with a number of consultants from a range of firms around their capabilities, your preferred timing and their capacity to respond could make the difference to not only the number, but the quality of the tender responses, and therefore the value you can get for the taxpayer which, after all, is what’s at the heart of a good outcome from your tender process.

And, if you’re nervous about whether the consultant is able to engage with you in a way that understands your probity needs? Well, perhaps pick up the phone to someone who used to be in your shoes!

James Collett is a client manager, federal government — infrastructure at Aurecon. He has 18 years’ experience in the Australian Public Service.

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