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PA IN THE MEDIA

Authorities negotiating with bidders during COVID-19 must be transparent and fair

This article first appeared in Open Access Government

The COVID-19 global pandemic poses key challenges to running effective procurement negotiations with bidders. Whilst the world is in unprecedented times, the need for equal treatment and the threat of legal challenge remains. The principles of fair procurement practices and compliance with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 continue to apply and any move to use technology in the process must be effective and secure.

Well-planned procurement timetables are beginning to be tested and teams of experts are developing contingency measures to manage the key milestone of negotiating with bidders. In normal times, it is important to test bidders and their ability to look you in the eye and give you confidence that they understand your requirements and objectives, and will be an effective long-term partner able to deliver the services you require. Now there is a need to respond to the new situation by using technology, setting clear and transparent instructions for bidders, and managing resources effectively and being flexible in planning.

Utilise technology effectively and securely

Technology can be used to deliver sessions virtually from different geographical locations. With Skype and Microsoft Teams already commonplace amongst organisations, consider whether they can deliver your negotiations effectively or if popular marketplace alternatives such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or Slack better meet your needs. Whilst platforms such as Microsoft Teams have the benefit of integration with Office365, Zoom and Slack have multiple App integration options and Zoom is simple to set-up and use.

Whichever platform best meets your minimum requirements you must test that it works and is secure. That means paying attention to access and security by updating dial-in details, access codes, meeting links, and restricting access to only those who need it. Many platforms support private rooms, allowing you some privacy to take discussions ‘offline’, away from your bidders. There should also be clear meeting protocols for who chairs meetings and who leads discussions. By controlling attendees (placing them in a waiting room until they are invited in, for example) and actively monitoring them, you can have confidence that you know who is listening.

It is also good practice that only the person speaking uses video to keep the stream quality strong and only agreed attendees can share content. Whilst video recording is an option on many platforms, consider disabling this function and be as vigilant about what is said during these meetings as you would if it were a face to face meeting. Take written minutes of meetings as you normally would and ensure that a clear record of conversations is agreed with bidders.

Set clear and transparent instructions for bidders

In these challenging times, it is even more important to give clear instructions to bidders quickly and ensure that bidders comply. Minimum requirements such as completing negotiations within a set timeframe, a quorum of personnel, and a weekly cycle of document submissions and meetings, also enable you to ensure your process is effective.

It may be advisable to request all bidders to sign a Declaration of Compliance to your minimum requirements. Where these minimum requirements cannot be achieved, consider postponing your process or re-assessing your procurement timetable. Pausing and taking a breath may be more beneficial than continuing and not appointing the correct supplier.

Manage resources effectively and ensure flexibility in planning

In all this, you will need to identify the personnel or key roles you must have at your negotiations with bidders, with substitutes to maintain continuity. By mapping the requirements of your key roles to your personnel capabilities, you can develop a flexible plan.

This plan should enable you to create a focussed, modular approach to planning dialogue topics to ensure effectiveness of sessions and build in flexibility within the procurement timetable. This means prioritising the key issues that will help you deliver your intended outcomes. As it is vital that no time is wasted during your process, there should be an agreed bidder standby list to step-in if a bidder is unavailable.

It will also be important to ensure frequent document submissions and that meeting minutes are developed quickly. This is particularly important if your procurement timetable is affected by attendee availability.

Treat bidders equally and fairly

Your negotiations must be underpinned by a clear commitment to ensure fairness to all bidders, treating them all equally and considering the impact of decisions on all bidders, as a group and not in isolation. That means being transparent about how you are using technology and considering how you can provide greater flexibility and offer this consistently to all.

COVID-19 means the way that negotiations take place has changed, at least in the short-term, but by investing time and effort now, the complexities faced by authorities can be turned into opportunities for the future. Procurement processes in a post-COVID-19 world may be delivered more flexibly and transparently as standard practice, supported by people with real experience of how to use technology effectively.

Sanny Yau is a public services expert at PA Consulting

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