You can’t win in dialogue, but you can gain an edge

07.04.17 | 13:45

As national procurement of the Work & Health Programme enters the competitive dialogue phase, seven organisations are competing for just six contracts.  DWP’s aim in using competitive dialogue is to improve the quality of the final bids received, ensure value for money by challenging the link between the service and price offer, and to clarify any areas of ambiguity. For bidders, it’s a final opportunity to engage the commissioner and test their thinking before submitting their best and final offer (BAFO).

Navigating competitive dialogue to get the most out of it isn’t straightforward. It’s an intense process. The short timeframe between the end of dialogue and the submission of the BAFO will favour bidders who are agile in response to any changes made to the ITT following dialogue. The risk that bidders undermine their case is likely higher than the opportunity to emphasise it.

That doesn’t mean bidders should play it safe. Dialogue is still an opportunity to impress, and those that do it best will emerge as exciting, credible partners in the mind of DWP. With PA and PublicCo’s insight from both sides of the table, we offer our thoughts on how to ace it: meticulous preparation, a strategy for managing the process and building the relationship.

Approach and Strategy

Dialogue is about relationships. It’s a conversation so personality and approach influence even the most clinical commissioner’s perception. Note who on your team the commissioner responds well to and act if there are people they don’t! Where permitted, use contact between dialogue to check in on how they thought the session went, get clarification and ask questions.

Success in dialogue-based commissioning hinges on linking excellent and innovative solution design to robust commercials. With the Performance Offer a standalone topic you will need to be able to convince the commissioner your offer will deliver the outcomes you are promising. Be transparent where the evidence base is thin (e.g. referral volumes). DWP will challenge hard, and being exposed in dialogue is a very uncomfortable feeling. Transparency with the commissioner creates shared understanding and highlights your commitment to achieving common goals collaboratively. You present as a partner, not just a supplier.

Articulating the offer

You should be able to relate all aspects of your solution to your key messages and differentiating features – make your offer memorable. What is the overarching narrative of your proposal, and how can you use storytelling to bring solutions and concepts to life? You have multiple audiences. One of the most critical are your local stakeholders. For bidders running in multiple areas, consider what aspects of your offer have universal appeal. Be specific when talking about integration for instance – give examples about specific localities, and articulate why that’s your approach in that area.

Managing the process.

Remember, DWP may use input to further shape the final requirement. Bidders should carefully consider what to share without giving away any competitive advantage. Be clear as a team which ideas you are testing, and what you are and aren’t (!) saying.

Have a point-person who is in every session and has strong knowledge of the entire solution. Empower them to manage the conversation, directing commissioner questions to the relevant team member in the room, and take charge where there is ambiguity. DWP will have their technical experts in the room, and you should bring yours who can speak their language.

Whole-team debriefs after each session are essential, as well as maintaining a single document set. The smartest bidders will, in the background, be updating drafts of their written bids to reflect dialogue so that they are as prepared as possible for the BAFO submission.

Finally, if we were you…what we’d be doing now is:

  • Setting realistic goals for dialogue:  remember what competitive dialogue is, and what it isn’t, and that it’s tightly linked to your BAFO submissions.
  • Prioritising areas of focus: What are the key issues or areas of ambiguity you want to cover? What are the key messages you want to reiterate?
  • Anticipating: What are the key areas for the DWP? Where are the weaknesses in your bids that will be scrutinised directly? What perceptions of your organisation to you need to challenge/reinforce?
  • Resourcing appropriately: As well as the right people in the room, have a support team that can work through things in the background and update materials/briefings. Use breaks effectively to share feedback and check progress.
  • Practicing: It’s obvious, but you will have people you need in the room who probably won’t have been through a dialogue process. Establish a challenge team to run mock-dialogue sessions and review preparation materials.

If you’ve managed dialogue well, then along with a positive impression you will emerge with a host of marginal improvements for your bids. As employment services procurement goes, the national Work and Health Programme is as competitive as any we’ve known – the margins are tight. You can’t win it in dialogue, but you can gain an edge. 

Stuart Murphy, PA Consulting

PA Consulting & PublicCo have created a Workforce  Provider Services partnership to support prime providers in delivering employment and skills services to the public sector. WPS brings capabilities spanning the different phases of development, from service design through to operational implementation. Our work is tailored for each of our clients and designed to address each organisation’s individuals needs and challenges. Get in touch: or