InterTradeIreland: Don’t despair when public contract goes overseas

InterTradeIreland has been guiding Irish SMEs through guidelines for winning contracts for many years

Margaret Hearty, director of programmes and business services at InterTradeIreland

Margaret Hearty, director of programmes and business services at InterTradeIreland

Mon, Mar 10, 2014, 10:11

A source of irritation for many people is news that an Irish public procurement contract has gone to an overseas firm. Sometimes this is a case of the product or service not being available from an Irish firm at a competitive cost but on other occasions it’s because the Irish firms do not know how to go about winning the contract.

InterTradeIreland has been addressing this issue for a number of years and has been helping SMEs throughout the island of Ireland access the €12.2 billion island-wide public procurement market. Services offered include specially organised “Go-2-Tender” workshops, meet the buyer events, and an initiative to help SMEs form consortia to bid for contracts which are too large or complex for them to fight for on their own.

“We believe this is a very important market for SMEs,” says InterTradeIreland director of programmes and business services, Margaret Hearty “We have been supporting them in this area over the past few years and helping them become sophisticated suppliers. We saw a need for a more cohesive set of support structures for companies regardless of whether they were bidding for public contracts for the first time or were experienced at it and were looking to expand in the area. There is significant change happening in the market and SMEs need to be hand-held through it to a certain extent.”

She points out that a lot of firms might have actually fallen into the public procurement market to a degree through a tender advertisement in their local newspaper from their local council. But this entry route is closing with the centralisation and aggregation of tenders for many local and national government services.

“This is happening all across Europe,” Hearty explains. “There has been some criticism of it but it is being done to save taxpayers’ money. It means that if companies want to get into this market they have to approach it in the same way as they would when they are entering any other new market and it needs to be high up the boardroom agenda.”

The cohesive set of supports put in place by InterTradeIreland begins with two-day Go-2-Tender Workshops which give SMEs the confidence, knowledge and practical skills to tender successfully for public sector contracts particularly on a cross-border basis. They can then move on to participate in Advanced Go-2-tender Workshops which offer advanced training and mentoring to experienced tenderers, enabling them to bid for more complex contracts.

Meet-the-buyer events are held each year to highlight procurement opportunities for SMEs. These events give SMEs the opportunity to meet with key public sector buyers from across the island. There is a free tender alert app for smartphones which provides SMEs with real-time tender alerts to their phone when new public sector opportunities are advertised in Northern Ireland, Ireland or across the EU. Firms can also avail of a Trade Accelerator Voucher which is worth up to £1,000 (€1,205) and can be used to get tendering advice from expert providers in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A new service is the Consortia Advisory Service which helps companies bid together for contracts. The service is delivered by InterTradeIreland consortia facilitator by Joanne Gillen who has significant experience in helping companies tender for business, both in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The service helps SMEs to find and select consortium partners; manage partnership bids; and prepare tender documentation. “My role is to help companies to tender together for contracts where they would not otherwise be able to do so on their own,” says Gillen. “Sometimes the bar is set a bit too high in terms of turnover or insurance cover levels for SMEs to be able to become involved.”

It’s not all negative, however. “A more cheerful reason for joining up as a consortium is that between them the firms might come up with a more innovative solution that’s more flexible, has a price advantage, or enjoys a greater geographic spread than larger firms can offer,” Gillen points out.

She notes that with the advent of the Office of Government Procurement there will be fewer but larger contracts to bid for. “By their nature these will be more attractive to larger firms and this will make it even more difficult for SMEs to compete with them. The Consortia Advisory Service will help firms find other SMEs to take part in consortia with them and if they have already identified partners we will assist them with the tender.”

One firm that has benefited from InterTradeIreland support in the public procurement area is creative communications company Agtel. “We’ve done a few of the InterTraeIreland tendering courses over the years and have found them very useful,” says Agtel head of client services Diarmaid MacMathúna. “A large part of the work we do is won through a competitive tendering process so we find them very helpful.”

Among the key things he learnt was that while all tenders are different and take a long time to do properly there are ways to streamline the process. “Joanne Gillen, who gives the courses, is really excellent. She advised us to put together a library of the different things such as team CVs, financial information in the right format and so on so that we can just pick them out as and when needed for tenders. This makes the whole process a lot quicker. We are a creative communications company and this allows us to spend more time concentrating on the creative aspect of the tender where we can add value and differentiate ourselves from the competition.”

Less obvious was learning when not to bid. “It is important to have a no-bid strategy,” he says. “This tells you what you don’t go for. There is a tendency to go for everything that comes out but that takes an awful lot of effort. At Agtel we are quite selective in what we go for. The InterTradeIreland courses have definitely helped us and our win rate has gone up since we did them.” And the service doesn’t end with the courses, says Margaret Hearty. “Part of our role is to with buyers and link them with suppliers. We can be that honest broker between the two. We have excellent relationships with SMEs and the public procurement sector North and South and we want to bring them together to help SMEs win a greater share of the market.”