The essential guide to PQQs (or SQs) in bid writing

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:

 

What is a PQQ?

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.
 

From PQQ to SQ

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.
 

What PQQs/SQs will ask for 

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:

  • your status – whether your organisation is a company limited by guarantee, charity or community interest company
  • organisation details – your company registration, VAT number and named contact 
  • financial standing – usually you’ll need to provide at least two years’ audited accounts 
  • grounds for exclusion – whether your organisation or any senior person within it has been bankrupt or convicted of fraud, financial, terrorist or other offences 
  • your intended supply chain or subcontractors
  • insurance – this means employers’ and public liability and professional indemnity (at least)
  • professional or industry quality assurance certification or registrations
  • up-to-date policies and strategic plans. 

 

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.
 

Example questionnaires

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).

 

The stages of PQQs and SQs

How does the pre-qualification questionnaire or selection questionnaire fit into the process of tendering? Here are typical timelines for each.

PQQ

  1. As a supplier, you express interest in a tender via the portal or website the buyer uses.
  2. You’ll receive an email notification of the publication date. (Having registered your interest, this should be automatic.)
  3. The PQQ is released with a deadline for submission (usually around a month later).
  4. After the deadline, buyers/commissioners will evaluate the responses and let successful bidders know they’re through to the ITT stage. (This generally takes another month.)
  5. The full ITT and specification is released. 

 

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.

 
SQ

  1. As a supplier, you express interest in a tender via the portal or website the buyer uses.
  2. You’ll receive an email notification of the publication date. (Having registered your interest, this should be automatic.)
  3. The SQ is released alongside the ITT and specification and will have the same submission deadline. 

 
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More to be ready for 

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.

 

1. Additional technical questions or supplementary quality questions

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: 

  • organisational safeguarding practices
  • supply chain and subcontractor management
  • data collection and security, including GDPR
  • quality assurance (external and internal).


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.

Data security: 
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.
 
Data retention:
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.

 

2. Changes to legislation or new areas of evaluation

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.
 

PQQs and SQs for subcontractors

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:

  • Identify subcontractors early.
  • Involve subcontractors from the start of the process. 
  • Establish contact with the right subcontractor staff member(s), and make sure they understand the information they need to supply to pass the PQQ/SQ evaluation.
  • Send them a copy of the questionnaire, highlighting the information you need. 

 

How to nail the PQQ/SQ 

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.

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of PQQs/SQs. You can have the best offering out there, but it’ll count for nothing if you can’t produce audited accounts or a robust health and safety policy.
  2. Make sure you’re signed up to tender portals and/or alert services for your industry and geographical area, so you know when a tender is due and can request the documents ready for its publication.
  3. Don’t think of PQQs/SQs as strictly tick-box exercises or underestimate the time you need to gather together all the information to complete them. 
  4. Don’t leave the task all to one person. An experienced administrator can complete 90% of PQQs/SQs, but you will need to call on other members of staff to chip in. For instance, answering the GDPR questions above needed extensive input from a member of staff responsible for information governance and data protection.
  5. These are long, dense documents and those completing them are prone to word and box blindness. Get a fresh pair of eyes to check everything is in order before submitting, including any appendices.
  6. Bank completed questionnaires with contract summaries and technical responses. Chances are you’ll be able to save time by using them more than once.
  7. If you have any doubt about your eligibility – for example, whether your insurance cover is sufficient – ask the question early. The buyer will have a clarifications contact email and the answers to any bidders’ questions should be published in a regularly updated clarifications log.
  8. Keep supporting documentation like accounts and policies up-to-date and to hand.
  9. Learn from each submission. If you don’t pass a PQQ/SQ, you need to identify why and what you need to do to rectify it. If you fail on written or technical responses, review the buyer feedback – be sure to ask for it if you need to.

 

In summary

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

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