General Advice On Writing A ‘Fit For Purpose’ Specification

With procurement support and training for schools, academies and Trusts diminishing, I have decided to try and plug the gap in this blog and related webinar by looking at how you can write a fit for purpose specification to help you run your tender processes more efficiently and effectively. 

In the first of a series of blogs on this subject, I will look at some general guidance on the information you should be providing in your specification. Further blogs will focus on more specific information relating to catering, cleaning and ICT managed services as these tend to be the procurements that you do most regularly.

To start on a positive note, it is so encouraging the way that the School Business Professional community is so generous by sharing your knowledge, documentation, and information to save everybody re-inventing the wheel. This is hugely important in supporting and encouraging each other.

From 1st January 2024, the Public Contracts Regulation Thresholds changed and they are now:

  • Supply, Services and Design Contracts: £214,904 including VAT
  • Works: £5,336,937 including VAT
  • Social and Other Specific Services (Light Touch Regime): £663,540 (school catering) including VAT

These values are for the life value of the contract and not just the annual cost. Therefore, if you are tendering for an IT contract for £150,000 but this will be extended for a further year then the total cost is £300,000. On that basis you would have to run a PCR compliant process as it breaches the above threshold.

It’s very important to remember that when you’re calculating your value, you must include VAT if that is chargeable.

You should also ensure that you don’t deliberately break the contract up into smaller chunks to avoid the PCR as this is definitely frowned on legally.

General Advice On Your Writing Your Tender Specifications

Garbage In, Garbage Out: You need to ensure that what you supply to your bidders is as accurate as possible. You have incredibly busy jobs, and it is so tempting to use an existing specification. However, you need to think about what has changed and review old specifications in detail. For example, if you are running a tender for a cleaning contract, is there a new building that has actually been built since you last tendered the contract? This may seem obvious; however, I did have a client once who forgot an entire new sixth form block that had been built, and we only realized when we did the site visit with the shortlisted bidders.  Whoops! 

Allow lots of time to pull your specification together. This is not a five minute job. Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to do this, particularly when you consider the value of the tender and its complexity. In addition, this is not necessarily something that you will be able to complete in one sitting and you may have to go away, collect further information, and return to the task.

Who else needs to be involved? Whilst you may have a really good understanding of what is happening with your services, it is still really important to involve as many people as possible when you are pulling your specification together. That should include your incumbent provider as they may be able to bring you up to speed on key things that you are not aware of. You need to balance and proceed with caution to ensure you are not overly led by their suggestions though as they will have a vested interest in making sure the specification is drafted in such a way that it will reflect their expertise. Do ask them about what is and is not working. Hopefully, if you’ve been having regular contract monitoring meetings with your various incumbent suppliers, this information should not come as a surprise and should probably be evident when reviewing your KPIs.

Think about your colleagues. Who else is involved with the service? For example, you should be considering your facilities team, estates managers, caretakers, your senior leadership team and your administrative staff in the school office. You will be amazed what you can pick up from the people who are dealing with these services on a day to day basis.

Don’t forget your pupils particularly for catering services. They can be a really great source of intelligence about the positives and the negatives of the current service provision. You could run a survey on Survey Monkey for secondary school pupils. Or in primary schools give the pupils a counter when they line up for lunch. If they really like the service, they put the coin into the green box or in the red box if they do not. You may also consider a parental survey.  Although I’d definitely add a ‘disclaimer’ on it to ensure they’re not expecting everything they ask for to be implemented!

Think about future proofing your specification. For example, with cleaning, it might be the case that maybe you don’t currently have the cleaning of the internal door glass, but that in future, you would like to have that included. It might be that currently, you don’t have the external window cleaning as part of your contract, but you’d like to include that in the future. The more you can put that into your specification, the greater the likelihood is that the supplier that you appoint will be able to meet not just your current needs, but your future needs as well.

With ICT, think about whether, for example, you are moving towards being a total Google school or a total Microsoft school. With catering, do you have a requirement to reduce food waste, or are you working as a school towards net zero, for example. All of these types of things are really useful to put into the specification, but also great to be thinking about when you’re considering what questions you want to be asking the bidders in the tender documentation that you’re sending to them.

Look at your KPIs. These are so important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have key performance indicators, but also, very importantly, to make sure you’re monitoring those KPIs. It is vital that you monitor and measure the performance of your suppliers against performance indicators that focus in on areas that are really important to you.

If you do have a contract that’s going wrong in some way, shape, or form, usually it will be failing to meet the KPIs. Furthermore, very often the only way to terminate a contract early, will be through a persistent failure to meet KPIs. So, four key points:

  1. Monitor your KPIs with your contractor
  2. Make sure your legal agreement, whether you have supplied it or your contractor has supplied it, has some mechanism to terminate the contract early if there is a persistent failure to meet those KPIs
  3. Think about your KPIs when you set up your tender as they need to be well considered. Contractors often have their own KPIs and working with them to negotiate a set that works for both parties is usually a win-win. You always need to ensure that they are easily measurable and not subjective. For example, you may have a KPI which states that “the toilets are clean”. However, what does clean mean? You may need to walk around with a contractor initially, so that you get a good benchmark what the definition of clean is,
  4. Finally, make sure that you have an appropriate scoring mechanism – what is a ‘pass’ and what is a ‘fail’.  This is much easier to evidence if you have scores for each KPI along with an overall % pass/fail target.

In future blogs I will focus on specific advice in relation to the more complex catering, cleaning and ICT managed services.

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