A typical NHS tendering process will include some or all of the following steps:
1. Issue of prior information notice (PIN)
Some commissioners will release a PIN to provide advance warning of their intention to launch an NHS procurement. A PIN may be issued up to 12 months in advance of the procurement, although typically the lead time is 6 months or less. At this stage, commissioners may ask potential bidders to make an expression of interest.
2. Issue of contract notice
Commissioners announce the launch of a procurement by issuing a contract notice. Each notice contains at least some basic information about the contract and details next steps e.g. how to register for a market engagement event.
There are several websites on which you can find listings of NHS contract notices (and PINs). The Contracts Finder website is managed by the government, is free to use and lists all UK public contracts worth over £10,000. It is definitely worth exploring and enables search by sector, geography, keywords etc. If you register on the site, you can also set-up email alerts for contracts which meet your specified criteria.
From 1st January 2021, the UK government’s Find a Tender service replaced the EU’s Tenders Electronic Daily for UK public sector contracts over about £118,000.
The NHS long-term plan identified Integrated care systems (ICSs) as a key development to bring about major changes in how health and care services are planned, paid for and delivered. ICSs are partnerships that bring together providers and commissioners of NHS services across a geographical area with local authorities and other local partners, to collectively plan and integrate care to meet the needs of their population.
From April 2021 every area of England should be covered by an ICS which means commissioning will become more strategic. Once we know more about the impact of this on the tendering process, we will describe it here.
3. Market warming or market engagement event(s)
Either prior to a procurement commencing or soon after the procurement has started, commissioners may invite potential bidders to a market warming event. Here, the commissioners will describe the background, objectives and scope of the contract and will usually open the floor to bidders’ questions. During the Covid pandemic, these events have typically been held via video conference.
Increasingly and especially on larger or more complex contracts, commissioners may seek the input of potential bidders to help shape the contract and the procurement process. This is usually done by asking providers to split into small groups to discuss e.g. whether and how the contract should be broken into lots or how providers might tackle specific challenges related to the contract. A commissioner representative will typically join each group to document the discussion.
If you are seriously interested in a particular contract, you should always try to attend these market warming events. They are a great opportunity to meet commissioners, ask questions, identify competitors and potential partners and potentially to influence the contract specification.
4. Issue of selection questionnaire (SQ)
The SQ (which has replaced the older pre-qualification questionnaire or PQQ) is used to ensure that only suitably qualified candidates proceed to tender submission. The SQ is divided into 3 sections:
- Part 1 Potential supplier information
- Part 2 Grounds for exclusion
- Part 3 Selection questions (covering financial standing and technical capacity)
Parts 1 and 2 are entirely standard while part 3 can be tailored by commissioners, usually through adding procurement-specific questions.
The good news is that the SQ reduces the burden of responding to a procurement opportunity. It does this by providing a common template and also through self-certification – supporting documents e.g. audited accounts are typically only required to be produced by the winning bidder.
5. Invitation to tender (ITT)
This is the heart of the NHS tendering process and where bidders have to do a lot of work! A typical set of ITT documents will include:
- Instructions to bidders. This is a key document. Each ITT is different and may have very specific directions concerning response formats. Also provided will be a breakdown of scores by question and a procurement timetable showing the deadline for clarification questions, the deadline for responses, contract award date and service commencement date.
- Contractual documents, including conditions of contract, statement of non-collusion etc.
- Service specification.
- Technical questions to be addressed by the bidder, usually broken into several sections, reflecting the nature of the service being procured e.g. service model, workforce, clinical governance and quality, IT. The response for each question is likely to have a strict word limit, typically from 500 – 2,000 words.
- Pricing schedule.
6. Presentations and interviews
Once tender submissions have been scored, bidders may be invited to present to commissioners and /or be interviewed by commissioners. A percentage of overall marks e.g. 5% may be dependent on performance at this stage.
7. Announcement of preferred bidder and contract award
Once commissioners have identified a preferred bidder, there is a cooling off period during which unsuccessful bidders may challenge the tendering process. The tender outcome will not be publicly announced until after the cooling off period.