How public sector procurement can go virtual

Out-Law Analysis | 10 Sep 2020 | 9:52 am | 6 min. read

Public authorities can use technology to run procurement meetings in a virtual environment just as successfully as they have been used to doing on a face-to-face basis.

Thoughtful planning is required to ensure that the benefits of getting people together in person can be replicated using technology and ultimately lead to successful contract awards.

The need to consider virtual procurement meetings has arisen in light of the coronavirus crisis, which has led to restrictions being placed on travel and people physically meeting in the same place. The crisis has also spurred an almost overnight reliance on technology platforms for hosting meetings with potential for lasting change to people's expectations of meetings and the way they participate in them.

Meetings pre-coronavirus

Traditionally, public sector procurements, particularly for the delivery of complex infrastructure or property development, are very in-person-meeting heavy, bringing together decision makers and advisers from different parts of the UK or even further afield. The cost, logistics and environmental impact of making that happen have long been an accepted overhead of doing business. 

Until now, numerous clarification, dialogue or negotiation sessions with several bidders throughout the process have often involved gathering 10 to 20 people together in a room, with presentations, drawings and large documents, often for several whole days with each bidder.

With some restrictions on travel and physical meetings of large groups indoor likely for the foreseeable future, it is necessary for public authorities to explore how to get complex procurements back up and running.

New tools

Our new working practices and technology provide a real opportunity to rethink how we all operate on a day-to-day basis. 

Businesses are now regularly using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and Cisco Webex to run meetings which would otherwise have been held in person. Even court hearings are now routinely being run virtually. In the democratic decision making environment, we also know that local authorities have adapted to enable committee decisions to be taken using video technology, with cabinet and planning meetings now held routinely in this way. 

Rowley Rebecca

Rebecca Rowley

Senior Associate

Usual good practice still applies ... For example, keep records of the meeting, and circulate non-confidential clarification questions and answers afterwards using the usual communication methods established for the procurement

There is scope for these virtual tools to be used to operate successful procurements too. 

Benefits of being together in a room

There are three particular benefits of getting a group of people together in a room which, on the face of it, you lose when you move into a virtual environment:

  • ·non-verbal communications – we all know a huge part of communication is not to do with what is said, and a lot of the cues we all pick up on are much easier to identify if you are sitting together, and picking up on the atmosphere in the room;
  • discussing an issue or approach with the "home team" is easy to do when you are sitting next to each other and can just step outside the room together;
  • sharing large documents, plans, drawings and diagrams and reviewing them around a table is commonplace and often a big reason for getting people together in one place.

Replicating these benefits in a virtual environment

Some contracting authorities are already using technology in their procurements, and we know that successful mediations have now been run using virtual meeting technology. Mediations are actually very similar to procurement meetings in the sense that they require all three of the main elements outlined above too.   

In our experience, with thoughtful planning, virtual procurement meetings can be run just as effectively as face-to-face meetings, with quality outputs leading to successful contract awards.

Contracting authorities can address the main things you miss when you are not in a room together in a number of ways.

Non-verbal communication

Video calls do enable you to see people, albeit they may be a bit smaller than usual and you have to work harder to interpret their reactions. Whilst you can try and maximise the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues, we have found that detailed preparation, and relying on a confident and fully prepared chair to lead the meeting, can effectively compensate for the loss of non-verbal communication. Our top tips:

  • Plan, plan, plan. In a virtual setting, it is much harder to recover from poor planning by "ad libbing" in collaboration with your team members; having a detailed plan to stick to is vital. The intended outputs of each meeting should be agreed well in advance by both parties. Share a detailed agenda in advance, with sufficient time to allow both parties to prepare on the basis of the final agenda;
  • Get a strong chair. Whilst lumbar support is important, in this case, we are talking about having a confident individual to lay the ground rules, guide the discussion and stick to the agenda. This is arguably more important in a virtual setting, so that it does not fall to other individuals to "carry the conversation". The chair also needs to be fair, and ensure that the bidder in question has also gotten what they need from the meeting in order to progress their tender;
  • Some video conferencing software enables participants to electronically flag or "raise their hand" during meetings when they wish to speak. Agree in advance if you will be using this capability/if it is encouraged, and if so, the chair can also use this in guiding the discussion;
  • Think more carefully about who attends each meeting. If the technology only allows nine people to be visible at any one time, should the meeting be limited to nine? Should the agenda be carved into smaller sections to allow a run of smaller meetings with different groups rather than one large meeting with everyone? With a bit of forward planning the sessions could be broken down into components to enable the right people to attend each slot;
  • Accept "the new normal". Having a regimented meeting and a directive chair may seem artificial or stilted at times, but in our experience, is effective. It's worth reminding participants of this, and accepting there may be technical glitches along the way.
  • Encourage all participants to keep their cameras on as much as possible, and make sure everyone tries to maximise their signal strength during the meeting

Discussing an issue or approach with the "home team"

During a conference or video call, it can be difficult to manage side channels for conversations with your team, be that via instant messaging, email or secure mobile chat apps. As in a physical meeting, looking at a phone or typing whilst talking to someone can be distracting, and off-putting to others, and it is not possible to concentrate on two conversations at the same time. To deal with this, we suggest a two-pronged approach:

  • Rely on your chair – as above, a fully prepared chair will be able to potentially direct "time outs" for either party when it looks as though the discussion is going off topic, or if it's clear that such a break out is needed;
  • Build in frequent "time outs" and the use of break out rooms. Many providers offer the ability to set up break out rooms, which as in the context of physical meetings can be very handy. Look into how these can be set up and test them in advance; it could be as simple as having separate team links for break out rooms, which can be intermittently accessed throughout each meeting as required. Rather than only utilising a "time-out" when things get heated, our recommendation is to encourage and "normalise" the use of break out rooms for both parties as much as possible. This allows for re-grouping which can make up for not being face-to-face for both parties, and enable smoother meetings in the long run. Make sure in particular that you know who can access each room and that you are able to be notified if and when someone tries to join a room.

Sharing materials

Screen sharing is a great tool, but if there are large documents think about sharing these in advance or checking whether attendees can either access a second screen to view them or print them ahead of the meeting. Large plans, diagrams or technical drawings will be tricky to see on a laptop screen. Consider dividing it into more viewable sections or circulating a hard copy ahead of the session.

Remember the fundamentals

The underlying foundations in public sector procurement are transparency, proportionality, equal treatment and non-discrimination of bidders. Moving from a conventional approach to virtual procurement sessions means ensuring that all bidders are treated equally, and can fully access the technology, as well as embrace the new approach. We are finding that, in the meantime, keeping in touch with suppliers and sounding out their views on a move to virtual meetings is absolutely vital to making this work for everyone's benefit.

Usual good practice still applies too. For example, keep records of the meeting, and circulate non-confidential clarification questions and answers afterwards using the usual communication methods established for the procurement.

While there is a natural tendency to favour and strive for face-to-face interaction, being able to operate successfully in a virtual environment is crucial to economic recovery in the short term. As a by-product of this shift, contracting authorities are likely to develop new skills and discover new ways of doing business in the most effective way as we move into the future.

Co-written by Nathalia Perera, also of Pinsent Masons.