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Brislen on Tech: Tender is the night

Paul Brislen, Editor. 13 November 2020, 2:24 pm

I was once tasked with working through a series of government tenders to figure out which ones the agency I was working with should apply for.

The first one on the stack ran to 20-pages of detail so I fired up the laptop, opened up a spreadsheet and went to work.

The first 19 pages were all about how we would submit our application. What font to use, how to double space, what format to save the file in. We would need three physical copies of our application and three digital copies (three digital copies? Surely you'd just email one in?) on USB sticks (oh, now I get it) of a certain size (far too big for the presentation document we'd produce but what the heck) to be delivered by registered mail to arrive no later than a certain date.

I read all 19 pages and didn't take a single note.

On the last page was some fluff about engaging with potential customers, reaching out, cutting through. About synergies and I'm sure leveraging as well.

To this day I have no idea whether this was a tender asking for a media campaign, a website, a series of events, a PBX system or something else (probably an app).

Thus ended my foray into applying for public funding for government work.


It's too hard, the focus is on the wrong things and it's a series of hoops through which only the brave or fully funded can jump - and that's where the problem lies. With a process like this small business simply can't waste the time figuring out whether you're serious or not and whether there's actually something of value lurking in the tender document. That means they don't bother applying and only the big international players or agencies that have grown up to support them, and who are used to such nonsense and speak it fluently, bother applying and they (it turns out) charge like wounded bulls.

This is not a good use of either technology, government funding or private sector time.

I follow a US-based military website called Task & Purpose for reasons that escape me. The writing is good, the detail is quite alien to me and the content is self-effacing.

It's aimed at military personnel and covers everything from new training requirements through to tales of derring-do and on to the latest in technology (rifles, vehicles, drones, and of course the "soldier of the future" kit that might one day come down to the actual grunt or marine in the field).

One theme has emerged recently - that of government procurement wastage. From sniper rifles to machine guns to armoured personnel carriers to helicopters and warplanes - the story is one of over-specification and blown-out budgets and projects that take years and, in some cases, decades too long.

Take the Ground Combat Vehicle Program which has gone through two complete iterations and cost tens of billions of dollars and been scrapped at least twice. Or the new F-35 jet that has a problem providing oxygen to its pilots despite costing around US$100 million each.

Over-engineered tenders that define what the bidder will do to the nth degree but fail to take into account the user or the how a system will operate are all too familiar to anyone who has come across a government document, whether it's for a New York City ambulance (the most expensive ambulances in the world) or a fighter jet or a computer system for Inland Revenue.

Governments have a real problem both with spending money and with getting value for that money. Typically they're scared of spending a fortune and being left with a nasty headline about being as bad as INCIS (the police computer system that notoriously did not live up to expectations) yet we still end up with Talent2 and Novopay - the teachers' payroll debacle or overly expensive systems that don't fit the user's requirements let alone save money.

Many years ago when I started as a journalist one of my first jobs was to cover the introduction of a new computer system at a certain government department. I interviewed the CIO who was full of praise for the new system and its increased capabilities. No longer would the department be shuffling paper back and forth, it would enter the digital age with a hiss and a roar and would shorten wait times, increase productivity and reduce costs.

When I finished as a reporter I ended up covering the final stages of the implementation. This was six or seven years later but the project was finally being deployed in production. The same CIO told me how good the system was, how they'd ironed out the bugs and got rid of all the problems that had plagued early iterations and now it was in production. Costs of course would go up because somebody had to pay for this shiny new bit of kit, but any day now it would offer increased capability over and above the system it had replaced. Any day now.

There is good news. The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has put out a discussion paper on how to improve the way government buys stuff. Are the panels of old still fit for purpose? Is there a better way forward for government departments that want to buy stuff?

Now is our chance to make a difference and who knows, maybe the next time government says it's buying something it'll tell us what it is they want to achieve instead of how many characters we can use in the application.

(PS - if you want to see a good example of getting it right, watch the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) video that talks about "soldier centred design" for a great example of how to build something that improves the user's life rather than fits a spec sheet.)


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Carl Klitscher 13 November 2020, 5:04 pm

You've missed out the $90 mill writeoff at KiwiBank, the MSD Kiosk-into-anywhere debacle and the continued spend of NZ Taxpayer money by various departments on US based SaaS products... hard earned money leaving New Zealand to support US companies using US staff instead of boosting the New Zealand economy and driving NZ innovation in the middle of an economic crisis.

So yes, leveling out the playing field and counteracting the inherent bias AoG deals like the MCSSA introduce would be a fantastic thing.

Mike Dennehy 13 November 2020, 5:41 pm

To be fair to Paul, the litany of wastage, poor decisions, wrong decisions and (often worst of all) no decisions is far too long to fit into a readable article.

Tenders should describe the business outcome required, and very little else. They are invariably over-prescriptive and require far too much detail about inconsequential matters.

After running foul of incompetent bureaucrats too many times, I unsubscribed from GETS and advised my BDM staff that if they ever found themselves tempted to respond to any government tender, they should instead stand in the corner banging their head against the wall, while feeding $50 notes into a shredder. It's cheaper and less painful, and gets a very similar result.

As an example, MFAT went to the market 5 times in 9 years for a specific solution that was readily available in the market, and did nothing on each occasion. Horrific wastage with zero consequences or accountability. Something needs to change.

Ron Segal 13 November 2020, 6:23 pm

Brilliant Paul, so true!

There also seems to be an increasing trend of having to prove contribution to the 'public good' in other ways than simply providing good value, in order to qualify as a supplier, which not only favours large businesses with spare effort and funds, but also forces subservience to the state's notion of what is public good.

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