Buying for schools

3b. Run a mini-competition between suppliers on a framework

How schools can buy goods, works or services from a framework where all listed suppliers may bid for your requirements.

If a framework requires you to run a mini-competition among suppliers, you must:

  1. Send an ‘invitation to tender’ (also known as an ‘invitation to quote’) to all suppliers capable of meeting your requirements.
  2. Evaluate the suppliers’ bids (or ‘tenders’) using award criteria, a scoring system and weightings.
  3. Choose the ‘most economically advantageous tender (MEAT)’ (ie combining cost and quality).
  4. Award the contract to the winning bidder.

The following describes this process in more detail.

Specify what you need

A specification should allow suppliers to understand exactly what you need to buy, including the quality and delivery date. You should finalise your specification before you begin the process of running a mini-competition between suppliers on a framework.

More information on writing your specification is available.

Look for suitable framework agreements

Once you’ve developed a specification, look at a range of framework agreements that are suitable for the type of goods, works or services you need to buy. Check with the following organisations:

Once you’ve selected a framework, you should read the framework’s process guidelines carefully.

Develop your service-level agreement (SLA) requirements

As you prepare the documents for your invitation to tender, you should consider what level of service you’ll need from the successful supplier.

An SLA sets out the standards of service you wish to receive from a supplier. Depending on what you’re planning to buy, you may wish to agree an SLA with the successful supplier as part of your contract with them, particularly if you require ongoing support or maintenance.

Suppliers may offer you a predefined SLA, which you may wish to accept or adapt to meet your specific requirements. Alternatively, you may wish to develop your own project-specific SLA. The supplier may charge you more if you adapt their SLA or use your own.

The SLA should include key performance indicators (KPIs) that clearly define what measures you’ll use to monitor the supplier’s performance. Effective KPIs should:

  • cover any important operating targets (eg you may need a supplier to fix any critical issues with an ICT service within 24 hours of reporting them)
  • specify all aspects of quality that are important to you (eg timeliness, reliability)
  • be measurable
  • define the level of service you require
  • allow you to assess whether you are getting value for money

Consider whether you need to include any requirements in case the supplier performs poorly (eg money back or service credits).

Check that you’re already collecting the relevant data to allow you to monitor the KPIs. If not, you may need to create a new management information (MI) process to collect and track the data or ask the supplier to do this for you.

Once the contract is in place, you should review the KPIs with your chosen supplier as part of regular contract management meetings.

Establish the award criteria, scoring system and weightings you’ll use to assess suppliers’ bids

Before you invite suppliers to tender, you should decide what ‘award criteria’ you’ll use to assess the suppliers’ bids.

The organisation that set up the framework agreement will have already run a selection stage, assessing suppliers. You might wish to contact the framework manager to clarify what checks they have made.

Award criteria can include:

  • the supplier’s quoted price
  • how the supplier plans to meet your requirements
  • how quickly the supplier can provide the requirements
  • the quality of the goods or services the supplier is offering

Together, they should allow you to assess which of the suppliers’ bids:

  • best meets the requirements in your specification
  • is the ‘most economically advantageous tender’ (MEAT), ie best combines cost and quality

Each of the criteria should have a range of possible scores (eg from 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest score) and a weighting (ie a figure by which to multiply the score depending on its relative importance to you). For example, if price is the most important criterion for you, give it a higher weighting than the other criteria.

You must include your award criteria, scoring system and weightings in your invitations to tender to suppliers.

More information is available on evaluating suppliers’ bids.

Reduce the number of bidders by using an expression of interest (EOI) process

According to EU procurement law, you must invite all suppliers on the framework who are capable of meeting your requirements to submit a tender for your contract. This usually means all of the suppliers on the framework or in a particular ‘lot’ (a group of suppliers within a framework).

However, if you wish to find out how many suppliers are interested in your particular procurement requirement then you can issue an EOI within the framework. Subsequently, you only need to send your invitation to tender to the suppliers who responded to the EOI.

Your EOI should include:

  • an overview of your requirements
  • your school’s size
  • the proposed duration of the contract including important deadlines (if known)
  • an EOI response date

An exemplar EOI document is available.

Create a timeline for the tender process

Before you send invitations to tender to suppliers on the framework, you should create a timeline for the tender process. Set out the deadlines for:

  • the clarification period (ie when suppliers can ask you questions about your requirements), with dates for when:
    • the clarification period starts
    • suppliers must send final questions
    • when you’ll provide your final response
  • when suppliers must submit their tender
  • the end of the ‘standstill’ period, if required
  • when you expect to award the contract

When you’re determining the deadlines, allow enough time for the suppliers to:

  • understand your requirements
  • ask questions for clarification and use the information you respond with
  • prepare a detailed proposal with costs

Send the invitations to tender (ITT)

An ITT is the set of documents that you send suppliers on a framework to invite them to submit a bid for your requirements. (Some frameworks use the term ‘invitation to quote’ (ITQ).)

You must send an ITT to all suppliers on the framework who are capable of meeting your requirements (unless you’ve already reduced the number of potential bidders by using an expression of interest process). Check the framework’s guidelines - with some it is mandatory to send an ITT to all suppliers on the framework.

You must only contact suppliers on the same framework, not a mix of suppliers from different frameworks. If a framework is divided into ‘lots’ that cover different goods, works or services, you only need to invite suppliers from the lot that corresponds to your requirements.

Your ITT to each supplier should include:

You must not change the contract’s terms and conditions, which will have been set as part of the framework agreement.

Run the mini-competition and provide clarifications

Keep track of the progress of the mini-competition against your timeline.

You should allow time for a clarification stage where suppliers can ask questions about your requirements. Regardless of which supplier asked a question, you must:

  • respond to all suppliers on the framework
  • anonymise questions and answers

Evaluate suppliers’ tender responses

Once the submission deadline has passed, you should assess suppliers’ tenders using the award criteria, scores and weightings set out in your ITT.

To avoid any legal challenges, you should:

  • not open any tenders before the deadline
  • make sure you treat all bidding suppliers fairly and equally
  • ensure that you clearly record how you’ve made your decisions so that you’re able to defend them
  • keep confidential, secure and auditable records of all the documents involved in the evaluation
  • be aware that you may have to disclose records of the process under the Freedom of Information Act

It is best practice to have at least 2 people separately evaluate and score each bid. They should compare their scores only after each has completed their evaluation. During this ‘moderation’ process, they can discuss any disagreements and must agree overall scores. Bear in mind that the more people involved in evaluating the bids, the more difficult it can be to reach an agreement at moderation stage.

If appropriate, you may wish to call on a specialist, possibly from within your school, to assess individual questions where you require expert knowledge.

You must keep a record of your moderation decisions. Frameworks usually have a system for recording scores, comments and moderation decisions. There are also commercially available software packages for this, or you can simply use a spreadsheet.

You must award the contract to the highest-scoring bidder.

You may wish to ask the framework owner when they last ran a financial check on the suppliers on the framework, and, if appropriate, run an up-to-date financial check on the supplier you have chosen.

Notify suppliers and award the contract

Once you’ve identified the winning bid, you should notify all of the suppliers of your decision at the same time.

Example letters to successful and unsuccessful bidders are available.

In your notification letter, we recommend that you include:

  • the name of the winning bidder
  • the award criteria you used
  • the scores for the winning bid
  • why you think the winning bid is the most economically advantageous
  • when notifying unsuccessful bidders, their scores and feedback on their bid
  • when the standstill period ends

If an unsuccessful bidder asks for the actual cost of the winning bid, you should provide it to them, but not a detailed breakdown of costs.

Debrief the unsuccessful suppliers

If an unsuccessful bidder asks for further feedback, you should:

  • only comment on that bidder’s tender (ie don’t share specific details of other bidders’ tenders)
  • give positive feedback where it is appropriate to do so

If you have a face-to-face meeting, we recommend that you keep notes during the meeting and have more than 1 member of staff present.

Apply a standstill period

It is best practice to apply a standstill period of at least 10 calendar days between notifying the bidders of your decision and formal award of the contract. This standstill period is sometimes known as the ‘Alcatel’ period. It allows for any unsuccessful supplier to challenge the decision if they believe it is unfair.

If the period ends on a non-working day, you should extend it to the end of the next working day.

Award the contract

After the standstill period, notify the successful supplier that you’re placing the contract with them. The school and the supplier should then sign the contract.

The contract’s terms and conditions (or ‘service order terms’) will have already been set as part of the framework agreement and you shouldn’t change them.

Read next chapter: ‘4. Managing your contract’.