Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service has a long history of supplier engagement, in particular relating to breaking down the barriers of public sector tendering for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) within their service area.
The service was amongst the first to sign up to the Welsh Government’s Opening Doors Charter for SME Friendly Procurement in 2009, and as part of our commitment to the Charter, we regularly attended regional ‘Meet the Buyer’ events. We also reviewed and streamlined all our tender documentation to remove any perceived barriers to SMEs wherever possible.
In the past our fixed wire testing and portable appliance testing requirements were procured via further competitions on frameworks that were available to us. This often led to national contractors based outside Wales winning all the work, so was not ideal when we had so many smaller electrical contractors based within Wales and indeed within the area we serve.
During late 2021 we started having discussions with our Head of Estates in terms of setting up our own frameworks to cover various trades – such as electrical; plumbing; plastering; roofing; flooring; painting and decorating, etc. We ended up with around 18 frameworks needing to be tendered.
The priority area for the Estates team to start with was electrical contractors, and following a discussion with colleagues from Dyfed Powys Police it was agreed that they also wanted to be named on the framework. This collaboration opportunity was particularly beneficial as the areas they cover are consistent with some of the counties that make up our service area, so there was no need for separate lots.
Whilst discussing the procurement strategy and determining how we could best reduce the barriers that SMEs traditionally face when tendering for public sector work, we decided between us that the best option would be to split the framework into 6 regional lots covering the counties which make up Mid & West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, in order to encourage local SMEs to bid for packages that would be small enough for them to manage. Although this structure would require more work by the Estates team it was clear that any disadvantages would be far outweighed by the benefits that we would achieve.
When drafting the tender documents we decided that we would look at what other aspects we could incorporate to try and further break down the barriers for SMEs, and as a result of this work we decided that we would limit the number of lots that bidders could bid for to a maximum of two per contractor. The logic behind this was that some contractors could be based in between two counties and would be able to service both without having to undertake excessive travelling.
There was also the added aim of levelling the playing field with the larger national companies who would traditionally have bid for all the lots, thus creating a barrier for local SMEs. In addition, we decided that in order to improve cash flow for any contractors that were successfully awarded onto the framework, we would allow them to get their supplies for the contract from our electrical supplies contract, meaning they wouldn’t have large amounts of money tied up in supplies, therefore only charging us for labour and call-outs.
We wanted to source a number of local suppliers for each regional lot, not only so that we could give something back to the communities that we serve, but also to have a sustainable contract in place where travelling would be minimised , therefore reducing the carbon footprint emanating from the delivery of this contract.
The aim was to get five suppliers awarded onto each regional lot. This would give us some resilience, particularly as the contract was also open to Dyfed-Powys Police to use.
What was unique about our story?
We held a pre-tender supplier engagement event in conjunction with Business Wales, a month before the tender was published on Sell2Wales – we did this so that suppliers felt as prepared as they could be for the tender process.
We made the decision to put a greater emphasis on quality than cost (50% Quality : 40% Cost : 10% Social Value), as the quality of the service and the social value it could potentially generate were very important to us as an organisation. We made it clear within the tender documents that contractors who demonstrated their contribution to the communities served by us, would score more highly on social value than those who didn’t.
Enabling the SMEs to use our electrical supplies contract to obtain all materials relating to the work they would undertake for us, means the contractor would not have money tied up in supplies which they would not receive payment for until they had completed the work. We believe this measure assists local SME’s to start off on an equal footing with the larger national companies in the tendering process.
What did we do and how did we go about it?
We worked closely with Business Wales to organize two supplier pre-tender engagement events held at two separate locations across our vast geographical area. The aim of the events was to encourage smaller local SME’s to tender and to provide them with the opportunity to engage with Business Wales prior to the tender being published.
Our contact at Business Wales did some extensive research in terms of the local supply base for electrical contractors and sent invitations out to relevant suppliers. Our incumbent suppliers were invited, and the event was also advertised on the Sell2Wales portal.
The two events took place a month or so before the tender was published on Sell2Wales. The engagement event was used to give contractors an overview of the project, clarify what our aims were and to sense-check whether what we would be asking for was realistic and achievable.
Although attendance at both events was fairly low in terms of numbers, several local SMEs were present – this was already good news for us. At the event we focused on the tender process, the timeline, and an overview of how the tender would be structured in terms of award criteria, including the quality aspects we were looking for. The event also allowed those who may tender, to network. And of course, we were able to get some feedback from the supply base as to whether our expectations were reasonable or not, in their opinion.
During the event contractors were also able to engage with Business Wales in order to find out what assistance they could receive. It was excellent to see contractors so enthused when discussing the forthcoming tender process and knowing that they would be able to seek assistance from Business Wales was comforting as we were fully aware that some of the contractors had very few staff and would find it difficult to deal with what can often be a bureaucratic process.
We received excellent feedback after the event with contractors advising that this was the first event of its type that they had attended. Some of the SME’s were also very pleased that we were putting a greater emphasis on quality as opposed to cost as they would have difficulty competing with national companies in terms of costs but were confident that they would fare well in terms of quality.
We were really pleased with how the events went, as we were cognisant of the fact that we didn’t just want service providers – we were also seeking partners to assist us in identifying sustainable solutions for our properties. In essence, we wanted contractors who were as committed as we were to minimising any negative impacts on our local communities, and who would also give a little something back to those communities they worked in.
The tender was published on Sell2Wales a month after the events to allow potential tenderers to be able to engage with Business Wales and get support in advance of the tender being published. Contractors then had six weeks to prepare their tenders for submission.
19 contractors submitted tenders, with the majority bidding for the maximum two lots. It should be noted that of the 19 contractors who submitted tenders, 18 were SME’s from within Wales, with 9 being based within our service area.
It was apparent from the outset that the majority of tenderers had submitted high quality bid, which included great examples of social value that would be delivered as part of the contract. It was pleasing to note too that a number of SMEs had taken up the offer of assistance from Business Wales, and this was evident in terms of the quality of their bids.
Following a robust evaluation process suppliers were awarded onto the framework as follows:
Carmarthenshire – Five SMEs (four based within our service area and the other within Wales)
Pembrokeshire – Four SMEs (all based within our service area)
Ceredigion – Five SMEs (four based within our service area and the other within Wales)
Powys – Four SMEs (three based within our service area and the other within Wales)
Neath Port Talbot – Four SMEs (one based within our service area and three based in Wales) and one national organisation.
Swansea – Four SMEs (two based within our service area and two within Wales) and one national organisation.
What are we most proud of?
We are most proud of the fact that we were able to structure the tendering process in such a way that gave local SME’s the same opportunity to tender as other larger organisations. SMEs are often at a disadvantage when it comes to tendering due to lack of resources, whereas the larger national companies often have tendering teams within their organisations. We have so many amazing local companies on our doorstep and all they need is an opportunity to show what they are capable of.
This procurement also highlighted the benefits of engaging with suppliers prior to the tender stage and the value of working closely with Business Wales to give SMEs the opportunity to get assistance with the tendering process. Procurement is far more than just buying goods or services these days – it is all about making sure that the impact of buying goods and services has a positive outcome, both in terms of reducing our carbon footprint and ensuring that our procurement activities give something back to the communities in which we live and work. This procurement exercise really was a success in terms of both of those aspects and it is a format that we will continue to use going forward, particularly when it comes to setting up the remaining estates trades frameworks.
What do we hope other public bodies in Wales will do as a result of our story?
We are hoping that other public bodies will be inspired to follow suit and make sure that their procurement strategies are such that SME’s are at least given a level playing field when it comes to tendering. It might take a little longer in terms of planning pre-tender engagement events and thinking about how best to prepare the structure of the tender, but it pays dividends in terms of making sure you get your specification right and give SME’s the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do for you and your local communities.
How does this help us contribute to Wales’ well-being goals and our organisations objectives?
- Working with local contractors will enable us to minimise our carbon footprint as well as looking at sustainable solutions when undertaking any type of electrical work.
- We considered the environment as part of our decision relating to the way we structured our tender process as we were more concerned about the quality of service provision as opposed to the cost, and were keen to give local SME’s a level playing field in terms of their ability to tender.
- We also included social value within the tender to ensure that those companies who gave something back to the communities they lived and worked in, achieved higher scores than those who didn’t.
- We considered the economic, social, environmental, and cultural well-being of Wales when deciding on the best procurement strategy for this service provision – partnering with Business Wales to ensure that local SME’s were supported if required.