What do these people think of you?

The people who award contracts have strong views about tenders submitted by voluntary organisations. Joe Lepper spoke to nine commissioners, of whom three chose to remain anonymous

Public sector commissioners (left to right: Carol McGrath, Dr Shane Gordon, Mike Potter, Ann Anderson)
Public sector commissioners (left to right: Carol McGrath, Dr Shane Gordon, Mike Potter, Ann Anderson)

- Gill Velleman, project director, NHS Bristol

"Late last year we appointed Barnardo's in partnership with North Bristol NHS Trust to handle a multi-million pound children's health services contract. Bidding for contracts in partnership with other NHS organisations or those in the private sector is something more charities should consider, especially smaller ones. If charities do not have the capacity to handle a contract alone, it makes sense to link up with those that do. The commitment shown by Barnardo's also impressed us. Senior staff were involved throughout and the lead person attended all 22 of our negotiation meetings. It is important that charities avoid paying lip service and ensure they are slick and professional."

- An NHS commissioning manager

"There was one small charity that applied for a large piece of work, but it just didn't have the capacity - it didn't have the staff or the experience of handling this kind of work. Part of its problem came down to not really reading the brief, understanding the level of work or answering questions properly. The charity also demonstrated a clear failure to look around and see if it could have worked in partnership with another organisation to run the contract."

- Dr Amit Bhargava, GP and chair, Crawley Practice-Based Commissioning Group

"In conjunction with the local borough and county councils, we are looking to commission two outreach workers, one for those with dementia and another for the frail and elderly. Before we tender, it helps us to know which local organisations can do the work. We have about 500 voluntary groups in the area and it can be difficult to separate those that mean well from those that actually have the means to do this work. We have close links with the umbrella group Crawley Council for Voluntary Service, which has detailed information about charities in the area. That is a great help when looking for suitable bidders."

- Ann Anderson, associate director of strategic development, Somerset Primary Care Trust

"As commissioners, we need to get better at engaging the third sector. In Somerset, we have tried to address that. We have set up a section on our website where we ask for expressions of interest from charities that want to work with us. This is not a formal tender, so it is not costly for charities and gives us a better idea of who is out there, who can help and what kind of services we can develop. A lack of knowledge about local charities has been a real problem in the past."

- Dr Shane Gordon, GP and chief executive, Colchester Practice-Based Commissioning Group

"Some small charities seem to resent having to go through the tendering process. In some respects that is understandable because it can cost them a lot of money and time to put in a tender. Charities should look out for a willing provider of contracts, through which they can match their skills to specific criteria and be placed on a roster. They are then offered paid contracts when the work comes up, if they fit. This cuts down on the time and money they spend tendering."

- Carol McGrath, older people's commissioning officer, Leeds City Council

"We have started putting a social clause into our tender documents in which we look at what a charity can bring to the contract that will make a difference to the community. An example of this was the award of our carers service contract. The charity that won the contract demonstrated clearly how it would look to increase the participation of carers and their families in activities and social groups. One of our priorities is to combat social isolation, so this really helped its bid."

- A primary care trust commissioning manager

"Some charities have put lines through questions they did not wish to answer, or claimed they should be exempt from legal requirements and certain policy initiatives simply because they were voluntary sector providers. On the positive side, we have received many bids that demonstrate how charities can meet our requirements and even go further. One example is a charity that showed how the award of the contract would generate other funding streams and thus bring more money and jobs into the area. Demonstrating sound governance and organisational structure is also important. What scares commissioners is the fact that large contracts might be awarded to charitable organisations that still require substantial capacity building and support."

- A central government commissioning manager

"Our feedback suggests that some third sector organisations have had difficulty submitting full tenders. In response, we have been holding workshops to help providers link up. By creating a partnership with or acting as a subcontractor to a larger organisation, charities can use their specialisms and get involved in delivering our programmes without having to take on the full administrative burden."

- Mike Potter, head of early years, Westminster City Council

"Some charities come into the process with a firm idea of what they want to provide rather than what we are asking them to provide. This is not the best way to tender for a contract. Over the past few years there has been a cultural shift away from that attitude, but a number of charities still think that way. What we are really looking for is flexibility - charities must show us that they can adapt what they do and work with us as partners. We have recently been impressed by a number of bids from charities presenting themselves as social enterprise organisations. This gives them much more of a focus on the business side of what we expect of them as providers, and helps make their bids much more presentable."

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