Reflections on 2020 in the Public Sector, Procurement and the Bidding World
2020 – only once in every century do the first two digits in the year match the second two and this has certainly been a marked year, although not special in the way we would have perhaps hoped. Like 1919, which saw the 1918 Spanish flu continue to wreak havoc, it is a year in which the world has had to deal with an ongoing pandemic. Of course, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the world and continues to do so, even managing to put Brexit in the shade, but I will be focusing on the effects the virus and other issues have had on the public sector, procurement and the bidding world by highlighting ten issues:
1. Business – Covid-19 hit the business sector, along with the rest of the world suddenly, very hard and in a very unpleasant way. National lockdown with the easing and tightening of restrictions created uncertainty and many businesses saw a rapid decline in trading. Even those not hardest hit had to face new difficulties in protecting staff and customers and in delivering services. My own business AM Bid which had grown by 30% from October 2019 until February 2020 declined by 50% between March and June due to a significant reduction in public sector tenders. We were not alone in having to make decisions on redundancy, furlough and home working. Some businesses with in-house bidding departments made the decision to move to an outsourced model with bid team members made redundant. It has been good to see the bidding profession coming together more especially led by APMP UK, our certifying and professional membership body.
2. Public Sector Tenders – Understandably, there was an immediate change of focus towards the provision of PPE, ventilators and other items urgently needed in healthcare to help prevent the system from being overwhelmed. Some buyers did not see the point in continuing with some procurements as some contracts could not be delivered during lockdown restrictions. This could perhaps be a short-sighted approach but nevertheless meant that there was a dramatic decline in tenders available.
3. New Opportunities – Some businesses seized the new opportunities available and pivoted from their usual trade in order to deliver into the public sector. The public sector focus towards PPE, etc meant that for a while it was one of the few shows in town still open, not going bust and paying pretty quickly. Of course, questions have been raised regarding some of these moves. The National Audit Office has reported that around half of the £18 billion of PPE purchases were in fact unregulated procurement with concerns over carpetbagging and exploitation by some. It is important that the general public can have faith in public procurement and that the whiff of corruption can be avoided – not easy when time is of the essence.
4. Public Sector Contingency Arrangements – There is always focus by the public sector on suppliers having contingency and continuity arrangements in place. However, the pandemic has thrown up that the public sector has to think about its own systems in terms of delayed decision-making, deadline extensions, committee cycles, COVID-19 safe and secure arrangements for home working, etc. One particular area where more adaptation is required is supplier credit checks. Looking at accounts from a year (or more) ago could be useless in the light of this past year. Some companies who were strong now have huge liabilities, including deferred rent payments and taxes and may not survive when it comes time to settle these debts. Further due diligence will be required and more credence given to strong balance sheets, particularly in relation to SME suppliers. There will be further crises, for example, with the climate emergency and lessons will need to be learned.
5. Home Working – This has been invaluable in allowing many businesses to continue in a safe way and has allowed employees to continue working who had to isolate due to contact with the virus, shielding, family issues, providing care for loved ones. However, there are issues apart from the practical IT, for example concerns around security and confidentiality as well as employees dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness, separation from friends and anxiety. Therefore, it is incumbent on employers to try to mitigate these problems. We have enjoyed team socials, a virtual pub quiz, a virtual cocktail night where we were sent a package beforehand and learned onscreen how to mix cocktails with a mixologist and our colleagues, a virtual escape room (we all made it out I am pleased to say with four minutes to spare!) and are aiming for further team socials such as name that tune and completing a virtual detective game. As employers we have an obligation to ensure that we play our part in helping employees with their mental health and safety. Physically too, there are things we can do to assist. One staff member required a standing desk to alternate sitting and standing which we were happy to provide. Additionally, it is good to remind employees of the need to get away from their computers and get fresh air, particularly during the limited daylight hours during winter. Some enjoy home working having more time with family and pets, others miss the office environment and some would enjoy a combination of the two. Where outcomes are measurable, there is little chance of abuse in home working. No daily commute makes it less stressful and it is kinder to the environment.
6. The Rise of Video Calls – Of course, video conferencing is an essential tool in home working and has been vital throughout this time both personally and professionally. People of all ages are getting involved with my eighty-two year old mother now using the technology on a daily basis. It has enabled virtual teams to work together and tender presentations have been able to continue with geography being less of an issue. It can now be possible to take a job on the other side of the world without leaving the comfort of your own home.
7. Digitisation – Robotics, AI, machine learning and other technologies are now coming into public sector procurement, with questions on how robotics will be used to assist in service delivery for example. It is great to see modernisation being embraced as these technologies provide efficiencies and improvements in how goods and services are delivered.
8. Diversity – 2020 was also the year where what happened to George Floyd in the USA sparked worldwide protests resulting in a sea change in attitudes toward racial injustice. The focus on diversity issues has been growing in the public sector for some time, with greater emphasis in relation to employees, supply chains and procurement. I interviewed Amos Simbo, founder of the Black Professionals in Construction Network, a platform for black and ethnic minority professionals to connect with other members of the industry, promote the sector as a good career choice and promote diversity among construction companies. Such initiatives will help the BAME communities get more involved in procurement, contracts and becoming part of more diverse supply chains.
9. Welfare – The public sector had to react quickly in order to get welfare payments to those in need. With regard to the homeless, it is a sad fact that it took a pandemic to get people housed and off the streets. This was achievable in large part due to the hospitality sector being so hard hit that hotels along with bed and breakfast facilities, who were unable to trade during lockdown could accommodate those without homes to shelter them. Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England footballer, has shone a light on issues such as child poverty / hunger. Bidders are giving thought to how they can connect some of these important issues into the social value (giving back to communities) elements of their public sector bid submissions.
10. Care – It is fitting that in this lookback on 2020, we are all grateful for the care provided by the NHS throughout this time, along with those working in care homes, care at home and those who look after loved ones. They have met a massive challenge head on, at risk to their own lives, health and with so many missing out on quality time with their families in order to work through this difficult time and this is a wonderful example of the good the public sector is doing.
Andrew Morrison, Founder & BD Director – AM Bid
APMP UK 2020 Bid Excellence Award Finalist