Telecare Soapbox: Twisted tender tendrils (UK)

Editor Steve asks why we still see tendering fiascos when so much experienced support is available.

The UK has a long history of both legislation and experience in relation to the procurement of publicly funded services. There is a veritable industry of advisers, consultants and lawyers who can be consulted on how to manage the process to stay legal and to get an effective result. Why then do we still see some tendering fiascos?

For example, there was…

the Northern Ireland Remote Monitoring Service telehealth tender that dragged out over three years, during which time one bidder dropped out and another one’s partner was dropped while, during that same period that very partner was getting on with running a successful and expanding service along the lines of the one tendered for, right there in Belfast. Readers may like to jog their memories of the sorry tale here.

We have also had two rounds of a national telecare (now including telehealth and telecoaching) procurement framework agreement (FA). The first was set up by the now defunct NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency and the second by Buying Solutions, or BS as we prefer to know it by. [Previous Soapbox – read the comments too.]

Notwithstanding that BS occupies a space much like Audrey II (the plant) in the Little Shop of Horrors, its twisted tendrils distorting the market as they reach into the recesses of the tendering process, the existence of the framework agreement does open up some interesting options for councils, NHS organisations, and any other public body that wants to put a telecare or telehealth service out to tender. These are:

  • pick your favourite provider from the framework’s list of approved providers and go with them
  • pick two or three of the above and hold a ‘beauty contest’ (a closed, quasi-tender process)
  • invite bids from companies on the list (a slightly more open process where one would expect established standards of true competitive tendering to be applied)
  • ignore the BS-FA and go down the highly regulated and somewhat cumbersome but totally open and relatively fair, European Union tender process route

The pathways to these options (with supporting documents) are helpfully set out in an interactive website on the North West’s Local Authority procurement portal The Chest. Do take a little time out to explore it. As I said, there is lots of help around for running a successful tender and the pathways, if somewhat tedious, are clear.

That’s why it is so puzzling to come across a recent example where the tender process has gone ‘belly up’. It’s even more surprising to see that it concerns Wirral Borough Council, which has the reputation of being one of the early starters in setting up a comprehensive and, indeed, go-ahead telecare service.

According to a paper (PDF download) for the council’s cabinet meeting of 13 October, on 1 September 2011 the council approved a change of telecare service provider from the incumbent whose three year contract was due to finish on 30 September. However, after that was approved the process stopped and the council’s cabinet were now being asked to approve the extension of the contract for six months while the service is re-tendered.

Now that is very odd!

Even more oddly, the authors of the paper appear to try to shift some blame for this unusual situation on a) a company that was not a direct party to the process and b) the bidding companies for not flagging up that they might have “difficulty or problems with reasonably meeting the mandatory Requirements”! (2.7)

But there is more…They state (2.10) that “at the time of completing the tender documents [the successful provider] answered ‘yes’ to the mandatory criteria in good faith and in every expectation that they could secure the necessary permissions and licenses to maintain the equipment, it is now clear that they could now not meet this aspect of the contract.”

In other words, before making the recommendation to the council to change providers the council’s officers assumed, but did not actually check, that the winning bidder – if that’s the right term in the circumstances – could actually deliver what it said it could. Why does the phrase ‘due diligence’ spring to mind?

This unfortunate state of affairs reminds us that Murphy’s Law is alive and well even in the most highly regulated process. And, of course, going down one of the BS-FA tendrils would not necessarily produce a better result because, as comments on the previous BS-FA Soapbox item implied, some companies attained a good score in the approval process by claiming experience that they did not have.

Steve Hards
Editor, Telecare Aware

Related tendering item: Dirty tactics in the telecare/telehealth market (UK) November 2009

Categories: Soapbox.


  1. Steve Hards

    Looking through my news sources after posting the above Soapbox I came across this. [url][/url] In brief, if Members of Parliament have their way, councils, the NHS and other public bodies will have yet another way to ‘fix’ the outcomes of their tenders to appoint their pre-preferred providers.

  2. Steve Hards, Editor

    Yet another source of scope for tendering mishaps (overlooked above) is the Northern Housing Consortium’s (NHC) own framework agreement relating to telecare services, called ‘Community Alarms Maintenance’. Unhelpfully there is no link to more details on the NHC webpage where you would expect it to be. [url][/url]