The following article was published in the December 2010 issue of Stand Out Magazine.
Tender. A word that draws groans of despair from all who hear it, even more so when the tender relates to work through the public sector. So why is this? Dean Parker, event production manager at Wilde Ones explains.
The whole principle of the tender process is based on creating competition, and with regard to public procurement, is now law under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. Already there’s a problem - ‘public procurement’ - second paragraph in and we’ve introduced jargon rather than plain English.
This piece of legislation came into force on 31 January 2006, and as far as I’m aware there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity, if any, to consult on the issue.
Even worse is the acceptance of the legislation - it’s here, we can’t fight it, so we’ve got to get on with it. I’ve talked to a number of people in the outdoor events industry about tenders (and those outside our industry), and haven’t found anybody who thinks that the system works well. Everybody understands the principle behind tenders, it’s just that the process fails on pretty much every level.
An initial failing are the hoops that have to be jumped through just to get a chance to tender - the ‘pre-qualification’ or ‘business questionnaire’ . Frequently these documents are aimed at medium to large businesses, not at the small business or sole trader.
Such documents are frequently written in legalese rather than plain English. Ironically, in completing the form, you will usually be asked to include an equal opportunities policy, a policy designed to prevent discrimination and to allow equality of opportunity. Yet the document you are completing usually discriminates against anybody who hasn’t spent their life studying law.
A major problem with the questionnaires themselves is that they are just exercises in ticking boxes, showing that you have a multitude of written policies on your shelves, no matter what your actual working practices might actually be. Obviously, if it’s written down it must be official.
If I was convinced that the paperwork that was sent in was being read, then I might feel a little more convinced that it was worthwhile, but I honestly can’t believe that the recipients even have time the to read and understand it.
Plain English please
Recently I was told that councils were ‘getting better’ at removing jargon from their documents. Getting better? That’s not really good enough. The “Plain English Campaign’ was launched in 1979 with the shredding of hundreds of government forms in Parliament Square. Ironic then that 30 years on, an appalling number of public sector documents seem to have been written in complete defiance of it.
It is clear that whoever creates these documents have no idea of what they are trying to achieve. If the advert was for a job for a member of the public, it would be in a multitude of languages, in braille, on audio, and written in clear, simple language that anybody could understand. And first and foremost would be the title of the job, followed by the tasks required to be fulfilled.
Somehow, when it comes to work for businesses, these elementary principles are completely ignored. I recently received a 54 page tender document from a council for a festival. It wasn’t until after wading through 46 pages of legalese did it specify what the job was!
Far from encouraging healthy competition, the way these documents are written is actively putting off companies from submitting tenders.
With regards to the actual tenders themselves, the obvious question is what qualifies the author to produce the document? I have read a multitude of tenders that are appallingly written, and fail to provide applicants the information they need to complete the tender. Why? Because the ‘procurers’ writing them are not experienced in the subject matter. Tenders are being written by procurement departments, rather than by the people who might know what they actually require.
Getting three quotes for a supplier of your stationery requirements is vastly different to appointing an organiser of an event. Any single aspect of an event – structures, fencing, power etc. – can have so many different variables it is impossible to give accurate costs. And the reality is, it’s the cost (and not the value as is often claimed) that is the deciding factor for making the final decision regarding the appointment.
And here lies the biggest bugbear. To produce an accurate and thorough tender document. an applicant can end up completing up to 50 per cent (if not more) of the whole workload of the entire job. Ultimately plans have to be submitted that have cost hundreds, if not thousands of pounds to produce.
Immediately, this carves out the smaller businesses who do not have the time, resources and finance to enter this process. Which is somewhat contradictory to the goals of ‘increasing competition’.
Even more frustrating is that this highly valuable and sensitive business information is then being handed over to the procurer, essentially free of charge. Unlike a creative concept, it is very difficult to claim intellectual copyright over an event or stewarding plan, which is why they are often ripped off wholesale by unscrupulous organisers. Too many procurers seem to regard these as ‘free’ consultancy studies. Maybe this is why the procedure is called ‘procurement’ - ‘theft’ doesn’t have quite the same degree of respectability about it!
Simply does it
I am not aware of any study or effort to demonstrate that the tender process actually does work, and that the system DOES create competition and achieve best value. My experience is that it is ineffective, and so wieldy, costly and time-consuming that it actively discourages smaller organisations and individuals from partaking. Consequently I believe it is now time for a thorough review into the public procurement process.
Many thousands of pounds of public money are being spent on the current system, with local authorities now having dedicated procurement departments and students even doing entire degrees in procurement! All other aspects of our business practices undergo regular review, so it’s about time this process is similarly required to justify itself.
After all, even the evidence from the authorities themselves indicate that it isn’t working. Recently I’ve received numerous invitations to seminars purporting to explain how to get work with local authorities. These are frequently entitled ‘Understanding public procurement’. That title alone indicates something’s desperately wrong. If you need a seminar to explain the process, then that process is too complicated.
I’d be far happier if the money being spent on such seminars had been spent wisely in the first place, creating a system that was clear, simple and useable by all.
A system that is fair. Is that too much to hope for?
In March 2011, Mish Toszeghi of KP Events discussed his experiences with the following article:
In December, tenders brought tears to the eyes of Dean Parker, production manager of Wilde Ones. It seems the topic has touched some nerves. Here, Mish Toszeghi, owner and director of KP Events, discusses his procurement experiences, as the ugly topic of tendering rears its head. Again…
A few months ago I was invited to attend a 2012 seminar for London-based businesses. Its purpose was to clarify the structure of the principal organising bodies and to explain the procurement processes that have been put into place. It was an interesting session and I was reassured to hear their pledge to ensure that small and medium-sized London businesses would be very well represented within the pool of organisations charged with the many tasks of putting on an Olympic Games. More on this later.
As a result of the “pep-talk” I enthusiastically registered my company on a number of procurement websites – among them competefor.com and supply2gov.uk. Although Olympic or Cultural Olympiad event management offers haven’t really started appearing yet, my registration did coincide with the quietest time my small events company has experienced for a number of years. And so, for the first time, I began that joyous task of writing speculative tenders, completing pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQ) and compiling a formidable list of company policies. I have dozens of them now.
Nobody would disagree with the idea that just having a health and safety policy is a worthy thing – it means at the very least that attention has been drawn to the fact that a minimum level of health and safety standards is expected of the company in question. That said, it proves absolutely nothing about how seriously an organisation takes the issue, and indeed whether any measures to address health and safety issues are actually ever taken. On the upside, it does mean that someone, somewhere a little further down the litigious paper trail, can tick the box (and presumably sleep easy while we event organisers stress over ensuring that our events actually do take place safely and trouble-free).
The same can be said of our working with children, lost children, environment and sustainability, financial procedures, quality assurance, equal opportunities, complaints procedure policies and the rest. What’s next? Our employees’ personal hygiene policy or our dealing with animals injured on-site policy? Of course, we can have a laugh about the absurdity of much of it, but the reality is that without having these various documents in place, you will be limiting your potential success in the tender stakes.
With the credit crunch seemingly hitting our industry a little harder now than it did last year, many more companies are actively seeking out contracts with the result that any openly advertised projects are attracting huge numbers of applications. The first hurdle is usually the PQQ, and if your policies aren’t in place, you’re presumably a likely candidate for the “do not invite to tender” pile.
It seems that the little companies have two choices. Either they employ a consultancy to examine their organisation and create customised company policies that are accurate and relevant, or they just botch something off the Internet. The former will generally not be a viable proposition to many smaller companies that simply don’t have the budgets available to spend on formal policy writing, so they opt for the latter. The result is of course fairly meaningless – it’s just a load more paperwork – but a seeming necessity in the game.
Now the other part of the game is the tender itself.
In the last three months I have tendered for six publicly-funded London event projects. While one is still outstanding, the outcome of the other five has been one failure to get beyond the PQQ, another failure at the proposal stage and three shortlisted proposals that resulted in an invitation in to meet the procurers. In two of these cases, I had a good time meeting them, got on well with very nice and sensible people, came away feeling positive, and soon after, received a note how much they enjoyed meeting me, how grateful they were that I had gone to the trouble of putting together such a detailed proposal… and that they had decided to offer the contract to someone else! In the third case, I’m pleased to say we were actually awarded the contract.
Disappointing as it is each time when a good chunk of work comes to nothing, we all have to accept the reality which is that these opportunities will only rarely have a happy ending. It’s not so much the competition against which we are battling, but whether what you believe to be a genuine tender is actually that.
Organisations are now obliged to tender out anything above a certain financial threshold – whether they want to or not. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in many situations a procurer will know precisely who they want to appoint – it’s the company with whom they have a long-standing established working relationship; the company that they trust and that they know will deliver – on time, on budget and with a smile. Why on earth should they look elsewhere? Yes, they need to be confident that they’re paying a fair rate, but there are far more straightforward ways of assessing that.
Instead, they launch into a full-blooded procurement process, define and weight the parameters in such a way that their preferred supplier has an advantage, and then appoint them in the fullness of time – effectively, a show trial.
This is all fine – it’s right that their favoured supplier gets the contract, as they have shown themselves to be worthy partners in the past. It’s also right – or at least entirely understandable – that people will be prepared to “bend the rules” a little in order to facilitate the outcome they desire.
The unfortunate fallout in all of this is that each time a tender of this nature is put into the public domain, it sets into motion a chain of wasted endeavour. Lots of people spending lots of time doing lots of work… for nothing.
Which brings me back to one of the events in my catalogue of recent pitches – the failure at proposal stage. This was a one-off event for a London Borough for which I submitted a 20-plus page document. I think it is fair to say that it was an extensive, well-presented, thoroughly researched and detailed document that addressed everything highlighted in the brief. It also came from a consortium of organisations, which indisputably have the credentials, background and experience to fulfil the remit. The response was a two-line note stating that they had received “a number of higher quality applications” and that we had not been successful. And as a nice touch they had addressed me in the email as “Dear John” (which I can assure you is not my name).
I was of course hugely irritated by this and wrote to their chief executive to make my point. I have absolutely no issue with the fact that my ideas may not have appealed – that’s perfectly OK. I was, however, deeply incensed by the tone of the response and the screaming absence of even a modicum of “politesse”. Any procurer that initiates a public tender really ought, at the very least, to adhere to the absolute basic standards of business etiquette in the process. That means a courteous response and some coherent, constructive feedback. Oh, and getting the name right.
Of course the raison d’être for the policy demands of tenderers is all to do with countering nepotism and fraud, as well as creating a fairer playing field. I’m not convinced that it achieves that. I actually think that in the long-term, the principal effect will be analogous to what has happened in the grocery market, with butchers, bakers, fish-mongers and green-grocers in terminal decline while the big supermarkets flourish.
Currently, the “Big Four” in the UK’s supermarket world account for more than a 75 per cent share of the grocery market. We’re not quite there in the event world, but with the smaller organisations being nudged out by unreasonable demands, I’d put good money on it going that way.
And so back to the Olympic Games – and the “jobs for the boys” rhetoric. Will they really be giving any significant event projects to small businesses?
” Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) – the motto bestowed upon the Games back in 1921 – though I’m sure it was meant as a reference to the athletes and not the contractors!
The article below was published in the March 2012 issue of Stand Out Magazine.
Does trust feature on your budget sheet Dean Parker, production manager, Wilde Ones, thinks it should.
Trust and relationships are two things that go hand in hand in the events industry. I value them both extremely highly, though you can’t necessarily put a price on them.
When clients are a little bit lastminute.com (as it seems, is all too often the case), it is the relationship with your suppliers that ensures that you are not let down.
When something goes wrong on an event site, it is the relationships between companies that ensures that everybody pulls together and helps to resolve it. The trust works both ways, and having strong relationships with both the client and the supplier is vital to an event’s overall success.
When that trust deteriorates it can have dramatic effects.
Until 2009, I used to produce a large charity event. Over a period of more than 10 years relationships were built with the charity, as well as suppliers, partners and concessionaires to turn it into the most prestigious event of its kind in the calendar.
It was an event that all parties were justifiably proud of. It raised awareness, was a great party and raised £20,000 for local charities. Not bad for a free event.
It was staged for a ridiculously small amount, the production costs for 2009 being just over £150,000, and it was the relationships and trust between the various parties involved that kept those costs down.
But several years ago, things started to change. New trustees got involved in the charity and, for whatever reasons, started changing things internally. The charity became very insular, isolating itself from the very businesses that had been instrumental in its success and destroying the relationships that had been built.
A few weeks ago it emerged that the charity now has debts of over £200,000. The future for the event is extremely bleak, with serious doubts over whether an event will be staged this year.
In the two years since that I haven’t been involved, the production costs for the event have risen by over £200,000.
At the start of this article I said you couldn’t put a price on trust and relationships. Well, just maybe, you can.
The article below was published in the April 2013 issue of Stand Out Magazine.
The events industry is at risk because suppliers and contractors are being asked to take on roles beyond their remit. So says, Dean Parker, production manager at Wilde Ones
As a production manager it is often assumed that I am an event organiser, and it is a surprise to some that there is a distinction between the two. So how do the roles differ?
My career in events started as an entertainments manager in a students’ union. This was a true “event organiser” role and involved everything – from coming up with the idea for an event, booking the entertainment and infrastructure, planning, promoting, and selling tickets, to managing the event on the day and the subsequent de-rig and reconciliation.
For a 2,500 capacity venue, it was reasonable for me to fulfil this role, together with a permanent technical manager and
a team of students. Though we would hire in technical equipment, and would divide the overall management into separate areas such as promotion, ticket sales, front of house, security and crew, events of this scale didn’t require an extra level of production management.
However, once I had left that environment, I began to work on larger events, ones
in which I was fulfilling a particular role within the overall event management
set-up. Being somewhat anally retentive, I gravitated towards the production side of
an event, rather than the PR/promotion or entertainment booking aspects.
This was quite a challenge for a control freak, as it meant focusing on just one particular area of an event rather than dealing with the event in its entirety. I was no longer the event organiser, just one of the cogs in the overall organisational structure.
And once I got involved in outdoor events, I discovered just how large that structure was – it now incorporated local councils, emergency services, health and safety consultants, traffic management and a whole host of other outdoor service providers.
What surprised me though, was that though the industry was filled with professionals from a variety of event-related fields, the one person who often wasn’t a professional (i.e. did it for a living) was the overall event organiser. In fact, sometimes it was difficult to ascertain exactly who the event organiser was.
Many may argue it doesn’t matter that the organiser is not a professional, that
it’s up to the partners and contractors to advise and guide the client through the minefield of event organisation. But that’s to misunderstand both the relationship between a client and a contractor, and the liabilities that the organiser has.
I am a professional production manager, but I am not an expert in areas such
as power, sound, or lighting. I use the professionals in these fields for their expert advice, but part of my professionalism is to have a rudimentary understanding of such technical matters.
Similarly, an event organiser should understand what their role is, and the
roles of their contractors at an event, the relationships between them, as well as taking the overall responsibility for the event – and a professional one will.
The problem I have witnessed though is that lack of professionals at an organiser level has meant that responsibilities are being foisted upon other parties, and together with budget cuts, this is creating a dangerous culture within our industry.
Many local authority “production” contracts now require production companies to procure the security provision. Clearly, security/stewarding is such a minor role and production companies hardly have anything to do, so why not lump them together? In some cases, local authorities are even encouraging sound and lighting companies to tender for the entire production contract.
This shows a complete lack of understanding of how large-scale events work, what the various roles are, and why they are so. It’s crowbarring the roles of an event organiser onto other contractors, and smacks of cutting corners and wanting to have the best of both worlds – getting somebody else to take on responsibilities without actually paying for it.
It is also an insult to those event organisers in the industry who are professionals, as it fails to acknowledge their importance and expertise.
Inexplicably, LOCOG didn’t see it necessary to have an event organiser – or in fact anybody from the events industry – on its board. Last summer’s Olympics was undoubtedly a great success, with superb ceremonies and events throughout.
But I have yet to find any event contractors singing the praises of its organisation, or wishing that they could do it again. And given its profile, kudos and acclaim as “The Greatest Show On Earth”, this is more than just a little disappointing.
The article below was published in the June 2013 issue of Stand Out Magazine.
COULD DO BETTER
Do free events, often run by local authorities, offer taxpayers value for money? Dean Parker, production manager at Wilde Ones, suggests that councils could produce more relevant events if they had the freedom and creativity to venture away from box-ticking exercises
There’s nothing wrong with free events. In fact, the majority of events I work on are free to attend. They can be wonderful, rewarding experiences. The issue is, they could be so much better.
Council-run events are often free to attend and, being paid for with taxpayers’ money, are subject to a certain type of scrutiny. Decision-making will frequently be implemented by tick-box exercises, and various textbook checks will be carried out when “procuring” contractors.
Multiple quotes will be required to ensure that best prices are achieved, references will be checked and scoring methodologies will be implemented, and this will be extended to ensure that community groups and council departments are all represented at the event.
But is this necessarily the most relevant way to go about organising such activity?
A couple of years ago I attended a free event staged by my local council. A day earlier I’d visited the site, and had been extremely impressed with the build and production aspects. From a professional, production point of view, it looked great.
However, when I turned up the following day, I was horrified by what I witnessed. It was quite clear that there was no overall vision to the event, no quality control over some of the activities, and no actual “promoter” in charge.
Huge stages were used to host community groups watched by 50-80 people. Community stalls – comprising a single trestle table – were housed in 6m x 6m marquees. A cake show – with two long rows of trestle tables – was housed in atent far larger than I’ve often witnessed DJs perform in at festivals.
Vast clearspan tents – up to 300 square metres with solid floors – were used to host half a dozen rowing machines, or a couple of display boards from Trading Standards. Most of these tents were depressingly drab and, unsurprisingly, mostly empty.
Some of the caterers at the event had the most appalling looking units I’ve ever seen. But, no doubt, they passed the health and safety checks, fulfilled the council’s criteria of being “a local business” and so were allowed to trade. The fact that their poor appearance brought down the overall quality of the event didn’t seem to be considered.
As it was a sunny day, the main stage and cider stall were unsurprisingly well attended. And that’s where the complacency and problem lies. The event is free, in the middle of summer, and has a number of bars and catering outlets. So, naturally, if the weather’s good, people will attend. Job done!
Except it isn’t. The goal should be to make every area as high quality, interesting, and well attended for as long as possible. That’s what happens at non-free events, because customers want value from the money they spend on the ticket, or they will spend it elsewhere.
Local authority ethos doesn’t comprehend this. Despite being part of the service industry, councils don’t have any real competition. If your rubbish is not collected as advertised, you can’t change supplier and suddenly decide to use a neighbouring council as your service provider.
In the private sector where you’re competing for business, the emphasis is about making your product or service better than the competition’s. Councils don’t have to compete for the services they provide, and I believe this is reflected in their attitude and actions.
Pre-event checks may look great on paper, but these ultimately end up being to the detriment of the event itself, as there is no overall vision for what it is trying to achieve, or for the whole “look and feel” of the event. Furthermore, there needs to be a “reality check” and someone needs to ask “do we really need this element, is this suitable for what we want to achieve, and does this serve both our needs and the customers?” And even more importantly, is this event best value?
But of course, “best value” is subjective and difficult to quantify. It’s very difficult
to compare “value” in a spreadsheet environment. And if you’re organising an event using tick-box exercises, it’s no real surprise if this question does not get asked.