© Enis Aksoy / iStock
© Enis Aksoy / iStock

This article first appeared in the edition of ‘Evaluator’ – the journal of the UK Evaluation Society in May 2019

When I was asked to write on capacity building for tendering and commissioning I thought briefly about making some high-brow comment on the ‘evaluation market place’, or how evaluators and commissioners can misunderstand each other. But then I decided that a more practical approach was needed.

You see, 85% of my work comes through tendering. So, I spend a lot of time reviewing tender calls, terms of reference and writing tenders and it makes more sense to expand on my own experience of tendering and commissioning. I reviewed previous tenders I’d written, and the terms of reference of contracts that I had won and lost to see whether there was any advice that I could give that would contribute to the general debate around capacity building evaluators and commissioners further. I’ve set out below what I think are the key points that any good tender needs to include and what well-defined terms of reference or invitations to tender should include.

For evaluators who want to improve their tender-writing skills these are the top five things that I think you should ensure you get right:

  • Tell a story: Use the tender to tell the client how you will take them from the start of the evaluation process through to the end. This is important because commissioners don’t have a lot of time and leading them through the process step by step helps your proposal to stand out.
  • Show that you understand the organisation and the project: Success often hinges on whether the client believes you ‘get’ them. Even if your role is impartial, the client wants to know you understand the project and the organisation’s context ahead of any evaluation process
  • Why you: Brag, yes, brag. You’re only as good as the last evaluation that you did. You need to show how you will bring your experience and skills to bear on the contract you are tendering for. To do that you need to show that you have solved similar problems in the past and can bring this experience to the evaluation.
  • Don’t play it safe: It is very easy to put forward a proposal that makes use of the methods that you enjoy using and feel comfortable with. That doesn’t mean that they are right for the client. Be sure that the method(s) you’re putting forward really is right for the client’s needs.
  • How useful will your evaluation be: be clear about how you think the client can use the evaluation and its outputs at the end of the process – ensure that the end result is useful in a practical sense.

For commissioners, the following five points should help you to improve the quality of the terms of reference you’re preparing and issuing:

  • Who do you want to work with: If you really envisage the work being done by a team then say so. If sole traders or smaller companies want to bid for a larger piece of work, then they know that they have to team up. That is no bad thing. Whereas if you do really want to work with an independent, then larger consulting companies know they are unlikely to be successful. It saves time and effort if you’re clear from the start.
  • What do you want done: Be clear. Seven or eight pages of technical waffle about a project doesn’t inspire anyone to submit a tender. A lot of the technical information about your project is already in the public domain and if an evaluator is worth their salt, they will do a background review on the project, organisation, even you. Rather, spend more time outlining precisely what you want done: what is the purpose of the evaluation, what outputs do you want and what utility do you envisage the evaluation having. 
  • How much do you want to spend: This is an old bug-bear. I do tend to agree with those that say knowing the budget or budget envelope upfront is better. Tell evaluators how much you have to spend inclusive of costs and taxes. That way you know that every tender you get should be well costed.
  • Give enough notice: This might sound really obvious, but the number of invitations to tender that come across my desk with a deadline just days away is enormous. Even large consulting companies struggle to submit something half-decent in a short time. Think about it: do you want to get as many high-quality tenders as possible so that you can make the best possible choice for all the reasons outlined above? If yes, then give evaluators enough notice to produce and deliver their best work.
  • Give feedback: The only way to improve is through feedback. If you provide feedback on unsuccessful tenders, then the quality of the proposals will be better next time around. Evaluators are also more likely to submit future tenders to clients that provide feedback than not (ok, that’s not actually scientifically proven, but I’ve stopped submitting tenders to organisations if after the second or third tender I’ve not had any feedback – and I doubt I’m not the only one).

I cannot guarantee that these points will improve your tendering or commissioning success rate. The points do all boil down to one simple concept: respect. We have to respect each other enough to provide each other with the best opportunity to deliver quality work. 

There will always be tensions in the supply and demand of evaluation services, as the number of smaller evaluation companies / sole traders increase, universities see evaluation as an income stream and commissioners come under more pressure to spend less and get more. Improving capacity in the tendering process will go only so far to reducing these tensions. Our overriding obligation is to deliver evaluations that are useful, grounded in solid methods and above all contribute to the common good.


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