It’s time to talk about terminology in government tenders

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Sometimes the terminology in government tenders makes questions seem unnecessarily complicated and hard for businesses to decipher. Let’s look at how government offer documents could be reformed to enhance the experience for everyone.

Organisations bidding for government contracts have learnt to accept the fact that government offer documents tend to be filled with government jargon. Experienced campaigners may have long-ago deciphered the meaning behind a series of complex, multi-faceted questions; but to newcomers the terminology in government tenders can have an alienating effect.

terminology in government tenders

Think of a business that’s been hesitant to bid for government work because they think government is not for them. They finally encounter a tender they’d like to respond to and… they have to wade through government terminology that may seem like jargon.

I know several companies that, upon getting to this point, do not ultimately bid. Several good companies. The outcome is that government misses out on considering some great service providers.

Much of our work at Mia involves advising industry on how to understand government terminology and prepare bids that score highly and get companies noticed by government.

But what if we look at it from the opposite angle? How can government come to the party and meet industry halfway?

Problem with the question?

Just as the onus is on industry to answer government tender questions thoroughly and correctly, the onus is also on government agencies to release market approach documents that are clear and direct to attract high-quality responses. If a question is consistently misunderstood or answered badly by industry, there is probably a problem with the question!

Indeed, the terminology in government tenders is one of the key culprits for communication breakdowns – and often it comes down to how specific phrases are used and the associated assumptions by both parties.

Some phrases used by government mean something a bit different in industry parlance, or are specific government terms not generally well understood by industry. Take, for example: probity, governance, methodology, policy, strategic, innovation, infrastructure, asset management, progression… These all have quite specific meanings in a government context, but different applications and interpretations in business. (We wrote a simple post about this a few years ago: Deciphering government terminology in tenders.)

To help address this disconnect, I believe government departments and agencies need to be more mindful of terminology differences when they create their tender questions.

It is only since I’ve been working in the private sector that I’ve realised how I too used to be guilty of making certain assumptions that were confusing (or perhaps even unfair) to industry. I’m not necessarily suggesting that government needs to change its terminology; but they need to acknowledge that differences exist and make sure questions are unambiguous in that context.

Case in point

To illustrate how the terminology in government tenders can lead to confusion, take the example of an oft-used question on project management methodology:

Describe the project methodology you will use in delivering the product/service, including your implementation approach.

When evaluating responses to this question, government assessors are likely to look for:

  • Use of a project management methodology (internally developed or based on a published methodology)
  • Gating or review processes
  • Budget control tools
  • Schedule management
  • Management of risks and issues
  • Ongoing project reporting, and
  • Governance processes.

They may also be interested in a repeatable process with a continuous improvement feedback loop.

In other words, the assumption is that industry will automatically address all of these elements in their response to this question. You can probably imagine how rarely that actually happens.

The fact is that government uses different project management terminologies to that used in the private sector. Moreover, within sectors there is further dilution of generic project management terminology. For example, project management within a service industry is very different to project management in a production industry.

And herein lies the problem. Evaluators score based on how well the question is answered (not necessarily on how well a business can do the job). These scores ultimately contribute to a tenderer’s value for money assessment (a ratio of tendered score to tendered price), which determines who wins the bid. However, it is difficult for tenderers to answer the question comprehensively and score highly if the real meaning of the question is not clear (or assumed).

Current processes therefore favour those businesses familiar with the terminology in government tenders and do not provide assurance that the best supplier will win the work.

Therefore, in a tender document, procurement officers should describe the output or function or risk that they need to assess, rather than use a broad process or generic terminology.

With this in mind, the example question used above could be rephrased to read:

Project Management

  1. Describe the project management methodology you will follow in delivering the product/service.
  2. Describe your method for ensuring the deliverables are being delivered on time, to budget and to quality.
  3. Describe your approach to managing risks and issues.
  4. Describe your approach to overseeing the delivery of the product or service and your points of escalation.

This extra set of questions will increase the likelihood of companies submitting high-quality and complete responses, thereby creating a more even playing field.

Another example

My other favourite example of confusing phrasing and terminology in government tenders is this question:

“Please provide details of the location of your head office and facilities which you believe may support your ability to perform the contract at a high level.”

I can say categorically that industry has no idea what this question means, despite its inclusion in Victorian Government offer documents since at least the year 2000 (when I was a government procurement officer).

Now I have had the benefit of assessing responses to this question many times, so I know government is looking at the following in response:

  • Systems to share information between the vendor and government
  • Systems to share information with subcontractors
  • Systems to show real-time project activity (schedule and cost-tracking for example)
  • Other facilities (including warehouses, assets, third party sites, vehicles, supply arrangements etc) that support the delivery of the contract without interruption to government. In many instances these ‘facilities’ can provide higher levels of customer service to government.

So instead, perhaps the question should read:

Please list all arrangements, systems, assets and locations that support your delivery of xyz to the government.
Please demonstrate how these arrangements can be used to provide higher levels of service and support to the Government in the delivery of services.

It’s definitely time for government to take a serious look at its market approach templates and make sure all documentation takes into account the terminology differences that exist between government and industry.

Removing the government jargon in tenders will remove unnecessary hurdles to attracting high-quality responses – which is in government’s best interest. Ultimately, government is seeking the greatest possible number of high-quality responses in order to select the best provider for the job.

3 comments in this article

  1. Randy Bowden

    Excellent. Insightful as ever. Hopefully noted.

  2. Anil Weereratne

    Very useful. Thank you

  3. Steve Bungay

    On the dot! These and many similar questions make us scratch our heads!

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