With more and more arts professionals joining the consultants’ ranks, Anne Bonnar has some important advice for those tendering for contracts.
With the shrinking of the public sector, the pool of freelance arts managers with redundancy cheques and an interest in trying consultancy has swelled. At the same time, the lingering whiff of public sector corruption left by the MPs’ expenses scandal has intensified the alertness to protocols for procuring consultancy services. So while I have been coaching some would-be consultants in the professional tools of the trade, some of the most important advice I can give is in how to crack the code in tendering and avoid the tender trap. Tendering for specialist services, particularly consultancy, is a time-consuming, expensive and at times disheartening experience for the newcomer.
There is an enormous difference between an individual applying for a job and tendering for a consultancy contract. Consultancy tenders can demand detailed information, ideas and personal financial data; some procurers operate clunky e-procurement systems that take up hours of time uploading files, while some still demand multiple copies of papers hand-delivered and sealed. In return for this major input, the response may be minimal and the rejection curt. Sometimes it’s the computer which says no according to blunt scoring systems. There is rarely the opportunity for the personalised feedback session, which applicants for arts jobs have come to expect, and expenses are not reimbursed for interviews.
So it makes sense to build up a good coat of armour to avoid feelings of rejection, but also to target your tender opportunities intelligently. In a fiercely competitive market, that means not only tendering where you have real demonstrable expertise but also learning to read between the lines, because some tenders are advertised simply to adhere to public sector procurement laws and policies but truthfully, are not really open at all. There are two main types of false fronts – one where someone is already in place and one where there is someone in mind. Public agency procurement is bound by financial thresholds. Any services amounting to over €125,000 must be advertised in the European Journal and generally anything over £10,000 is subject to an open competitive process. Public agencies sometimes find that they have initially valued a service at a rate below the threshold for an open process and then, some time later, need to extend the contract but can’t do so without advertising. So how do you spot that in a tender process? Unfortunately, tender documents never, in my experience, state that someone is already in place and officials will never volunteer that information. But there are usually some clear signals that this is the case. Firstly, the advertisement will be poorly promoted, maybe only on a public body’s own website. Secondly, there will be an accelerated time frame: it might be posted only two weeks before the deadline, which means that by the time it is picked up by any of the main tender promoters there will only be a couple of days to submit. And thirdly, there will usually be a specification that detailed experience of a particular programme or organisation is required. This is code red for a would-be tenderer. I once shared in an embarrassing and expensive experience where an éminence grise of the arts world was in post but was forced to get embroiled in the indignity of retendering and being interviewed because I had failed to recognise the code red and submitted a darn fine tender. If I had known, I wouldn’t have, and would have saved myself time and money, and avoided an awkward situation.
The other false front is harder to spot and that’s when an arts organisation has someone in mind for the project but is forced to advertise because it has received public funding. The only visible signs are usually a very short time frame for the tender and poor advertising – but that can equally be a sign of poor planning and/or a crisis. So it is best to phone the client and ask some leading questions. No one is going to admit that the job is lined up for the artistic director’s friend or an old colleague from the arts council, or even an expert who has been involved for some time, but some sensitive interrogation will usually provide strong hints. It is only after the submission, when the client tells you the next day that the contract has been awarded that your suspicions will be confirmed.
Genuinely open processes are easy to spot. They are advertised widely with a reasonable time frame and are clear in their specifications and the process involved. The process for recruiting the specialist advisors for AmbITion Scotland is a good example: several weeks, widespread advertising and a clear specification demanding a two-page email response –what a breath of fresh air.
Wouldn’t it be good if we could agree a code understood by all, green to signify that a tender really was open and that the client was actively looking for specialist expertise with no preconceptions, amber to signify that someone was probably in the frame already and – well no one would code red. Public agencies should anticipate the maximum value of services at the outset to avoid code red and red faces all round.
Anne Bonnar is an independent consultant and a founding director of Bonnar Keenlyside. She blogs at 21st century culture.
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This week Anne was seduced by the unexpected siren gurglings of Bill Fontana’s ‘Primal Soundings’ when walking past Leeds City Art Gallery, refreshed by the bright talent at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art Degree Show and kept sane on delayed trains reading Mary Lawson’s ‘Other Side of the Bridge’. She regularly visited the continually updated art work on www.thisiscentralstation.com and was transported across the Persian sea through her Spotify playlist to the world of Iranian music. She was amused and reassured as ever to see Martin Creed’s EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT blue neon light on the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art .