Sciencewise procurement is moving from a dedicated but small framework onto the more populated Research Marketplace. With more potential bidders for future work, and as a way of giving broad feedback to those who have bid for work over the past few years, this is an opportune moment to provide a few pointers on what those scoring proposals look for and some pitfalls to avoid.
What do we expect?
A basic expectation of proposals for Sciencewise projects is that they will draw on and demonstrate familiarity with four documents. Two are common to all Sciencewise projects and two are tailored to the demands of each individual project.
- The dialogue specification: this sets out the background and context to the project, and the commissioning organisation’s requirements. The language used in the specification can be full of clues. One example: does the specification say that outputs need to be robust? Then you might want to think about data capture, whether you should cost in transcripts, and how much information you should provide about your approach to analysis.
- The dialogue question document: the responses to these questions establish the bidding team’s credentials – their expertise and skills – and the proposed approach to fulfilling the project specifications. Answering these questions is fundamental: in the absence of responses to all parts of a question, a bid is incomplete. Unfortunately, we see a lot of bids where one or more aspects of a question are not addressed.
Bidders will also complete a financial schedule, but the bid evaluators (who will include representatives from Sciencewise, UKRI and the commissioning organisation) do not see the costs. These are scored separately, by UK Shared Business Services. However, everything discussed in your proposal must be in your budget.
As well as these two core documents, bidders need to consider the Sciencewise Guiding Principles and the Quality Framework not just as theoretical frameworks but as practical guides: how will you implement this guidance in practice? The Quality Framework, in particular, sets out some of the factors we use when assessing bids. For example, does the proposed approach fulfil the requirements of a dialogue, or is it really a research project with a few knobs and whistles? Some of the ways we assess this include:
- the approach to involving specialists (by experience or by qualification): are they merely presenting information or is their role woven into the logic and design of the process? Have you thought about the difference between evidence and opinion?
- how specific interest groups (for example, patients) are involved: is their inclusion tacked on – perhaps an additional small group or a set of interviews – or has the bidder thought creatively and interestingly about inclusion in a deliberative context, in which
dialogue across different perspectives is fundamental?
- whether the proposed approach to data collection, analysis and reporting is clearly explained? Sciencewise projects are commissioned to have a policy impact, so the outputs need to have credibility with the intended audience, beyond the commissioner. This is about more than tacking on a few policy briefings: attention to impacts starts from the inception meeting and should be woven into all aspects of a project
- what attention has been paid to the ethical dimensions of the topic and of the process? How are you addressing this? What implications might the ethical dimensions raise for your approach to design or for the governance of the project?
Bidders who are interested in winning competitions should read the Quality Framework and Guiding Principles alongside the specification and, in their responses to the questions, demonstrate that their response weaves the common and specific requirements together.
Looking more closely at bids over the past four years, some common shortcomings are evident. These suggestions point to how you can avoid these shortcomings:
- Why, why, why? When we ask for evidence of each team members’ relevant skills and expertise, or the details of a proposed methodology, we want to know not just that your team has these skills or that you are suggesting this approach. We want to know why all this greatness is relevant to this particular project? Why (and how) is the methodology you propose going to fulfil the project objectives and have the policy impacts required? Don’t leave us to try and work this out for ourselves: explain.
- Signposts and structure: As the bidding process shifts to the Dynamic Marketplace, the number of bids we receive is likely to increase. Giving your bid structure can help it to stand out from the crowd. A page of narrative, with no headings or bullet points can be off putting and hard to read. Use headlines, bullet points, diagrams, infographics, play back the language in the specification, make it clear that you are responding to the questions we have asked.
- Close reading: there is a difference between a risk and a challenge. And between a risk and a harm. The words used in a specification and in the question document are (for the most part) considered: we expect bidders to consider them as well and to demonstrate they have done so in their responses.
- Lucidity and simplicity: we can’t read your minds, so spell out very clearly what you intend to do. Tell us how long a half-day workshop is, for example. Surprise us with a carefully considered risk table that factors in project specific and external risks – media attention on a topic, unexpected events that throw designs off kilter (pandemics, perhaps). Keep your syntax simple. For some commissioners this will be the first time they have read a proposal for a deliberative dialogue: make it a good first time.
More broadly, two pointers might help bidders think about their overall approach to a bid. The first is that Sciencewise wants to build capacity in this field and widen the pool of potential bidders whilst maintaining the high standards of delivery. One way to do this is by looking for well-considered collaborative bids. For example, would a video ethnographer, someone with expertise in gamification, or graphic facilitation, or CAD or animation add value to the process you have designed and if so, how? Would a small research agency with a specialism in discourse analysis or behaviour change help the process achieve its objectives and add to the projects’ impacts? How? Think creatively and have a few conversations with potential partners so that when a competition goes live you’re ready to go.
A second general point is to use the limited number of words you have wisely. This means not wasting them on vaunting your reputation. We score the quality of bids, not the organisation, its renown or experience, and being well known or having run a similar project on a related topic previously is no substitute for a good bid. Once you have described your team and their expertise, focus on the requirements for the project.