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Early Market Engagement: A Guide For IT Professionals
One of the strengths of public sector technology procurement is its established guidelines. These are essential to uphold fairness, transparency, and the responsible use of public funds. However, in the pursuit of ‘doing the right thing', public sector organisations may inadvertently preclude themselves from undertaking early market engagement, and miss key opportunities out of an abundance of caution. This article discusses the importance of proactive dialogues with technology suppliers before formal procurement processes take place.
An ethical dilemma?
Contrary to popular belief, early direct engagement with suppliers before launching formal procurement is not unethical. In fact, it’s encouraged by Crown Commercial Service (CCS). Sarah Sek, Associate Director, Commercial explains why:
"I am a strong advocate of engaging industry at the earliest possible point, ensuring the best outcome for the customer and the supplier. Collaboration is key, and learning from shared experiences only helps to ensure a viable and healthy market to maintain a competitive environment and best value for the taxpayer which is ultimately, what we are all striving for. We are all recipients of those benefits as a society."
There is a prevailing myth that early market engagement is simply a vehicle to speak with incumbent or preferred suppliers about an upcoming contract - under the guise of transparency and fairness. We strongly reject this stance.
We do however, understand that organisations may be deterred from direct pre-market engagement, for this reason and others. All too often we see organisations blindly enter a procurement process without a clear idea of their challenges, and the potential solutions on offer in the market. So how do we carry out open procurement discussions in a way that fosters innovation, and toes the line of published guidance?
The Sourcing Playbook
The UK government's Sourcing Playbook emphasises the role of early market engagement, particularly when exploring technology solutions. The playbook advocates for projects that invite innovative thinking, and recommends early dialogue with potential suppliers to gain insights into emerging technologies:
"Preliminary market engagement should actively seek out suppliers that can help to improve service delivery, including Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprises (VCSEs) who are experts in the needs of service users and widely involved in the delivery of public services across the country."
There are many technology communities that can help you to host these fact-finding exercises, such as Innopsis and TechUK. Organisations such as these have access to a wide membership of innovators and technologists of all sizes, with different areas of expertise. You will also benefit from having an independent facilitator who can ensure your pre-market engagement sessions are conducted fairly and openly.
Widen the net by ensuring you’re SME inclusive
While engaging with suppliers during preliminary market engagement, it is important to acknowledge that SMEs may not be present on all frameworks. To promote inclusivity, the Sourcing Playbook recommends openly announcing any preliminary market consultation through the publication of Prior Information Notices (PINs) and early market engagement notices on Contracts Finder. This ensures that opportunities are accessible to a broader spectrum of suppliers, contributing to a robust and competitive market.
For further insight, solutions such as Crown Commercial Services Frameworks, Digital Market Place and Find a Tender Service and Tussell, provide lots of information and insights - both current and historical - to help build a picture of PIN, bid and tender processes. This can be useful for organisations throughout the supply chain, from suppliers, to procurement teams looking for best practice. It’s worth remembering that this relies on organisations publishing information in a timely fashion, with accurate and complete data, which is not always the case.
Approaches to Market Engagament
There’s no one size approach to market engagement, which can range from transactional interactions such as emailed questionnaires and surveys, to more complex and collaborative approaches like supplier webinars, conferences, and workshops. CCS Procurement Essentials provides insights into these processes, allowing public sector entities to tailor their engagement strategies based on the scale and nature of the project.
Our Top Tips for Effective Early Market Engagement
Engage Early and Widely: Initiate dialogues with a diverse range of technology providers to explore a variety of solutions.
Internal Collaboration: Make sure you involve procurement colleagues every step of the way. The most successful contract awards start as they mean to go on, collaborating internally and drawing on the knowledge and experience of internal procurement professionals. These people live and breathe procurement and go through rigorous training, they are the experts, use them wisely.
Be transparent and clear about your needs with your procurement department so that they can ensure alignment with timelines and procedures. Last minute scope changes can be costly and are not always necessary if you keep procurement engaged.
Inclusivity for SMEs: Choose engagement processes that do not disadvantage SMEs by being overly resource-intensive for the scale of the project, or limited to particular frameworks.
Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know, or pause a procurement activity if you feel the time isn’t right or has unclear scope. Suppliers will thank you for this. On average, a procurement exercise that has some pre market engagement, a tender to complete and down-select activity can cost suppliers in excess of £50,000 just to respond.
Early market engagement is a strategic imperative for public sector entities seeking to procure technology that delivers better citizen outcomes. By fostering collaboration, embracing innovation, and ensuring inclusive engagement, public sector agencies can navigate the complex landscape of technology procurement with confidence, ultimately contributing to the evolution of a dynamic and competitive market.