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The essential guide to PQQs (or SQs) in bid writing
Author : Tom Gard
Posted : 31 / 05 / 22
You’d probably have to travel pretty far to find someone who loves to fill in forms. But they are an essential part of life. And if you respond to tenders – especially for public sector contracts – the form-like PQQ (or SQ) will be an essential part of your working life.
So we’ve created a guide to match – with everything you need to know to nail your next PQQ.
Here’s what it covers:
PQQ stands for pre-qualifying questionnaire.
The clue is in the title. Before you get to dazzle the buyer with how you’ll fulfil the contract, first you have to qualify for the chance. You have to prove you have the capacity, experience and financial standing before you’re invited to outline your proposal at the second stage: the ITT (invitation to tender).
So a PQQ is a pass/fail filter by which the buyer narrows down the field of bidders to those they are confident can meet their requirements.
It saves them time and resources that would otherwise be spent wading through reams of submissions from anyone and everyone interested in the contract.
PQQs are almost always part of bidding for public sector contracts, as these tend to be more complex and subject to tighter regulation than the private sector. However, careful private sector buyers are also likely to want providers to meet similar minimum requirements, for instance to be able to demonstrate financial robustness.
Most responses are self-reporting, asking you to confirm you meet all requirements by ticking yes/no boxes. You’ll often have to upload evidence like accounts and certificates as appendices. It’ll save you time to have other administrative details to hand, including the address of your accountants, names and qualifications of directors and details of subcontractors.
If you are a young or new business or organisation who can’t meet some of the experience-based criteria, don’t despair. Most commissioners will work with you if there are other means of establishing your credentials.
For example, if you don’t have two years’ audited accounts, they may accept a bank or owner’s guarantee of available funding. Or if you haven’t yet received that professional or quality assurance accreditation but can demonstrate you are working towards it, that might suffice.
If in any doubt, you should raise queries with the buyers through the tender portal.
In 2016, the standard selection questionnaire (SQ) was introduced, with the idea that it would replace the PQQ in public sector procurement.
Although both questionnaires cover the same ground, SQs are designed to speed the tendering process up by letting providers self-certify that they can meet all the requirements.
With PQQs, you have to upload all relevant documents with the completed questionnaire. But with SQs, only the successful bidder or bidders have to produce evidence they can fulfil the contract at the point of it being signed. And removing the pre-selection part means SQs can come out at the same time as the ITT, which can save months.
But, given that they collect pretty much identical information, the lines between the two are still blurred. People may use the terms interchangeably. And you may well find yourself completing both over time, even for the same buyer.
Strict two-stage PQQ-to-ITT tenders are rarer nowadays. But PQQs remain a useful tool for commissioners to use to narrow the field before issuing lengthy and complex ITT quality evaluations. So they haven’t gone away.
And if you’ve gathered all the evidence you need to complete a PQQ, then you will have all the right documents in place to self-certify in a SQ with confidence.
One marked difference between the two types of questionnaire is the increasing use of pass/fail or scored, word-limited quality questions in SQs. These often deal with drier areas that don’t sit well within the main question themes of the ITT. This can include governance, quality assurance and data protection or GDPR.
For example, a recent large health and social care tender that I worked on included substantial written evaluation sections on supply chain management and clinical and information governance.
How long and complicated a PQQ or SQ is will vary according to the complexity of the contract. This might require a complex supply chain or working with vulnerable adults or children, for example.
At minimum, expect that you’ll need to be able to supply details of:
Policies you’ll need as standard will cover health and safety, environmental practice, equality and diversity, business continuity, information governance, data protection and GDPR. You may also need to produce other policies specific to the nature of the work in the contract.
Hopefully, your answer to the question on any grounds for exclusion will be no. But if it isn’t, you’ll be given the opportunity to explain what safeguards have been put in place to ensure whatever happened doesn’t happen again.
You can have a look at a sample PQQ and SQ from the Crown Commercial Service using the links below. All public sector tenders will cover the same areas as these examples do (and some may include more).
How does the pre-qualification questionnaire or selection questionnaire fit into the process of tendering? Here are typical timelines for each.
Sometimes an enlightened commissioner will issue a draft ITT and contract specification alongside the PQQ. This means bidders can start planning their quality responses while waiting for confirmation they’ve passed the PQQ stage.
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We’ve covered a lot of what typically appears in a PQQ or SQ. But things won’t always be standard and predictable with every questionnaire. There are a couple of ways things can become more complicated – so it’s best to be prepared.
As I said earlier, it’s increasingly common to find additional written-response questions in SQs. And these sometimes appear in PQQs too, where they can’t conveniently fit into the main ITT.
Most often, these questions will be about processes. And while they tend to have small word counts, be warned: they can be technical and quite complex.
So be ready to write detailed responses on areas such as your:
Here are a couple of example questions like this, from a recent local authority SQ. These two come from a series of 12 (yes, 12) non-word-limited questions on GDPR, and should give you an idea of just how demanding these can be.
Please provide details of how you ensure data security. This should include any automatic flagging or reporting of breaches or incidents in relation to your systems. Please state what controls for data management and security, monitoring and detection, response and remediation you have. Please also consider physical security, such as building security.
Please provide details of how you handle retention of data or records. This should include any automatic flagging or reporting of records at the start or end of their retention period, and any archiving facilities.
Once in a while, a new piece of legislation or area of social policy may be incorporated into public procurement law – and then into PQQ/SQ evaluations. Questions like those above on GDPR only started appearing once the Data Protection Act 2018 came into force.
And as I’ve said before, elements of social value may begin to appear in SQs and PQQs – and these carry a weighting of at least 10% for government contracts. So, for example, you might need to prove you are responding to the climate crisis with stricter environmental standards in years to come.
In my experience, the subcontractor element in PQQ/SQs can get lost in the process. It may be that at the time the questionnaire comes out, you still haven’t settled on whether you’ll need a subcontractor. Even if you know you will, you still may not have decided who to use.
Negotiations rumble on, and you may reach an agreement just days before the submission deadline. Then you realise you need the subcontractor to fill out their own sections of the PQQ/SQ – and the scramble begins!
If you plan to use subcontractors to deliver a large portion of the contract, they’ll usually need at least to separately fill out parts one (organisational details) and two (grounds for exclusion) of a PQQ/SQ. They may even need to complete a separate questionnaire themselves if they are delivering a really significant proportion of the contract.
However, what constitutes a ‘significant proportion’ is a grey area and often at the discretion of the buyer.
As a rule, a significant subcontractor is one whose activities are ‘essential’ to delivering the core contract. (In other words, your delivery model wouldn’t work without them.) Or it could relate to the percentage of the overall contract value that the subcontracted work accounts for. So, if your subcontractor delivers 5% of a £1m contract, that’s £50,000 – and potentially significant.
All this applies equally if you plan to be a subcontractor, so the message is the same. Be ready and make sure the information you need is accessible.
As the lead contractor, you are ultimately responsible for the SQ’s or PQQ’s completion. Do the following to help avoid last-minute issues:
Beyond everything we’ve covered already, here’s some best practice advice for getting the PQQ or SQ right – and making the most of the process.
SQs and PQQs are inevitably dry documents and rarely get the creative juices flowing. But they are the necessary hurdles you have to overcome before you get a chance to really sell your service or product.
They are much more than tick-box exercises. Yes, there are plenty of boxes to tick, but there are also detailed summaries of previous contract examples and written technical responses that require expert attention and buy-in from across your organisation.
And every PQQ or SQ you fill in is also an opportunity to learn and improve, identify (and fill) gaps, and keep strengthening your offering.
Image credit: fizkes / Shutterstock
Tom is an experienced bid writer and consultant, as well as a former journalist, communications director and press consultant.
Before going freelance, he was a senior bid writer for social enterprise Turning Point, where he led on successful bids worth over £10 million annually.
In his journalism days, he regularly wrote for The Times, Telegraph and Guardian. These days, his copywriting skills help him share his bid-writing expertise on the Emphasis blog.
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