The electrical contractor’s guide to e-tendering

The 2012 London Olympic games were a massive logistical undertaking, involving multiple vendors across different disciplines. They were also an exercise in how e-tendering works.

From early on in the procurement process, an e-tendering service was launched, a significant development for the construction sector. All Olympic contracts were dealt with via this service and it allowed contractors to stay updated with current and future tender opportunities.

Since that time, e-tendering has become a mainstay of the contracting landscape, and electrical contracts are no exception. Here we’re taking a closer look at how e-tendering works:

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What is e-tendering?

At a basic level, e-tendering is the issue and receipt of tender documentation through electronic means. This broad definition covers sending or receiving by email, downloading documentation from a website or using software which drafts, issues and responds to tender documentation.

While the term e-tendering can cover all of these things, we are looking at it from the perspective of a paperless tender process – one where everything you submit is done via a portal or website, without the need to print anything off. This type of e-tendering was used for the London Olympics and has become more common practice since. Usually, it is enabled through e-tendering software which the company or agency wishing to procure the service has set up.

As a side note here, one of the core aims for the Olympics was to achieve various sustainability goals for procurement. E-tendering helped them to not only identify those contractors who would be a good fit, but to keep the impact on the environment low. Going paperless has definitely caught on in terms of saving resources.

Who is using e-tendering?

E-tendering has become common vernacular when discussing anything to do with government tendering and other public sector tenders in the UK and Europe. You may have used portals or the OJEU previously, as there has been a growing trend of outsourcing public sector contracts to private contractors. As a general rule, those public sector contracts always go through an e-tendering process.

There is also growing use of e-tendering among larger companies in particular. They tend to have the resources to put the infrastructure in place, and look for ways to streamline their operations.

While to date there has been little research into the adoption of e-tendering in the UK, those reports that are available (such as these from 2008 and 2011), indicate that the private sector has been relatively slow on the uptake. Medium to large companies were much more likely to have implemented an e-procurement system, with concerns over the cost of software cited as an issue for smaller businesses.

The summary takeaway here is, if you haven’t been accustomed to e-tendering, it’s something that is likely to come up for your company. There are good opportunities available in the public sector for which you’ll need to use e-tendering, while it’s becoming more common in the private sector too. Why is this so? Generally because of the advantages which e-tendering can bring, which we’re looking at next.

What are the advantages of e-tendering?

Let’s look at the advantages from the procurer’s perspective to start. One of the first benefits is that they can easily set up a repeatable, standardised process for accepting tenders. This often begins with a PQQ (Pre-qualification Questionnaire) which helps them to weed out potential applicants who don’t meet their minimum criteria.

The process for procurement for the London Olympics used a system like this, with particular emphasis on companies having policies for sustainability, equality and inclusion. They reported that their “CompeteFor” PQQ system helped to mitigate fears that small to medium businesses would be disadvantaged.

An e-tendering system can help companies automatically make some decisions in this way. For example, if a company checked “no” to a question that you require a “yes” for, this might be a quick way of weeding them out. They can compare tenders in an electronic format and overall, it is less cumbersome.

Another benefit to the procurer is that they can deploy the system quickly and automatically. They don’t have to send out hard-copy documentation because it is all digitised. This is a saving of both time and money for them. Furthermore, they can easily send out any messages that they need to because the system will gather and store contact information.

Lastly, a benefit of the centralised e-tendering system is that it is a single source, which reduces tender administration and provides a secure, electronic audit trail. Version and revision control are implemented automatically, reducing the possibility of errors in the paperwork.

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The “Balanced Scorecard” used for London Olympics procurement (source)

Benefits for electrical contractors

Many of these benefits mentioned will have some overlap for those who are submitting an e-tender. For example, you can easily access the system and start reviewing the tender immediately, without having to wait for paperwork. The centralised nature of it means you know you’re looking at the latest version.

The process itself for getting through your tender is usually very structured and guides you through in a logical way. It is formatted the same way for every applicant, so you don’t need to worry about ensuring you’ve put it together in the preferred format, or that someone else’s prowess for design and layout pushes theirs above yours.

For that matter, e-tendering can also help to level the playing field because it ensures that everyone is answering the same questions and has the same word limit available.

Usually, e-tendering portals are divided into sections where you need to complete one before moving onto the next. It’s easy to pick up where you left off in this digital environment. This also helps you to ensure that you submit everything that you are supposed to. Most of these systems will warn you if something is missing, helping to reduce your chances of a non-compliant bid.

To name one final benefit, e-tendering can help to easily facilitate communication.

Are there any disadvantages of e-tendering?

Looking at disadvantages for procurers first of all, one of the first and most impactful is the cost of implementing an e-tendering system. Some large organisations put their own proprietary software in place, which involves software build costs as well as possible investment in technical infrastructure like servers. Sometimes technology capability needs to be significantly increased.

From the contractor’s perspective, sometimes the process that you need to go through to complete an e-tender can feel like a marathon of answering questions. They often leave very little room for you to demonstrate innovation, as the process is quite prescriptive.

On the technical side, sometimes moving into tendering in this format is a big learning curve for those used to traditional methods. Many systems (especially government ones) are set to timeout after relatively short periods, meaning that unless you remember to save your work often, you are in danger of losing some of it. (Some have introduced automatic saving, but many haven’t).

Finally, e-tendering always involves creating some kind of account or login to a system. You’ll have a username and password, and potentially need to set up several different accounts for different systems. This leaves open the possibility of forgetting login details, possibly delaying you from getting on with work (the use of a password manager greatly helps here).

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Final thoughts

E-tendering has become more commonly used across both the public and private sector. It helps to create a centralised system that all can access and that organisations can easily update and communicate through.

While e-tendering systems can have some downsides, such as cost to implement, generally, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

There are many opportunities now which will only be available to you via an e-tendering system, so it is prudent for electrical contractors to get comfortable with using them. You could find yourself with a more level playing field for opportunities, perhaps even at the level of the Olympics.

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