I quite like the challenge of finding work and coming up with proposals. I also like working with the public sector. But finding and getting work isn’t always easy.

In fact, it feels like I’m getting pretty good at submitting proposals that aren’t successful. Not the right fit. Not the right time. Budget doesn’t work. Other independents or agencies are just more experienced or suited to the work.

I’m fine with it. It’s the way it is. But going through the public sector tendering process is an experience. 

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a process. There absolutely should. The organisation will want to find the right fit for their project at good value. For independents and agencies, it’s about fairness and transparency.

But it’s not easy. I want to share my questions, thoughts and feelings as I go through the process.

Getting an invite

I get invited to put a proposal in! Well, this is nice. Then the overthinking starts…

Why me?

Has someone said nice things about me? Are my erratic attempts at marketing actually working? Did I just appear in a Google search when they were stuck for someone to make up the numbers?

Am I wasting my time?

Am I the right fit? Do I have what they’re after? Can I fit it in? Things like timescales, budget and the scale of what they need are whirring around in my head. (More on these later)

What are my chances?

I have no idea. Am I one of a specially selected few? Am I making up the numbers for their 3-quote rule? Has it been sent to a cast of thousands?

(I was once directly invited to submit a proposal for a piece of work. They forgot to use Bcc and it turned out so had at least 20 other independents and agencies. I gave it a miss.)

Going for it

I decide on this occasion maybe I have a chance…

How do I get in?

I go in. Well, I try. The first step is navigating ‘the portal’. But I’m up to the challenge. That must be part of the test. Then I download the 17 attachments and work out which one is the brief. I try to get my head around the form. ‘If yes, please provide details in questions 1.1(a) (i), (a) (ii) and to 2.1(b) (i), (b) (ii), 3.3, Section 4 and 5.’ Ok.

What does that mean?

I work my way through the brief and get to know some fairly serious strategies, working groups and funding programmes. I’m all over the acronyms. It’s a good job I studied local government as a second language.

That’s a bit personal?

Legal structures. Self-cleaning status*. How much money my business is making. Shoe size of each sub-contractor. It takes a bit of researching, but I’m on it.

*Nothing to do with washing, it turns out.

I need £10m public liability insurance to run an online survey?

It’s their blanket insurance policy, apparently. No budging, it’s out of their hands. I assure them my surveys aren’t that bad. But then I start doubting myself. Maybe they are? Is £10 million enough?

Are those timescales right?

This might be because I’m only little, but that looks like a lot of work in not a lot of time. But if that’s what they need, I won’t let them down. I’ll bring in some freelance friends to help me. I’ll work like mad for a few weeks. Evenings in front of Masterchef can wait.

How long is a piece of string?

It’s one of those briefs that focuses on outcomes – ‘this is what we want to achieve, we’ll leave the methodology up to you’. Sounds good. I have a few ideas. I’ll work out the scale needed from the budge….Ah, it’s one of those ‘we want best value so we’re not telling you the budget’ ones too. That’s not a lot to go off. I ask a few questions which gives me a better idea of how long the string needs to be. I’ve narrowed it down to somewhere between a shoestring and a yarn.


I explain to my confused insurer why I need to up my levels. I spend some time researching acronyms. I have a best guess at how long the string needs to be. And then I send something off. Fingers crossed…

The aftermath

Have they forgotten about me?

I’ve not heard anything yet, but it’s only been a few days. Relax. Give them time. Another few days go by. Should I chase? But I don’t want to annoy them. They’ll be in touch soon. I wait. Still nothing. This isn’t looking good, is it?

Is it me?

I get ‘the email’. The one that starts with “Unfortunately, on this occasion…”. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. I’m fine.

It always hurts a bit. I try to take the positives. Tell myself I didn’t want it anyway. At least I won’t miss Gregg Wallace and his desserts. Who am I kidding? 

Why me?

Part of me wants to sulk and give up. But I need to know why. What did I do wrong? I ask for feedback. After some polite chasing, I get some. Areas I can improve. Things I missed. What the successful bidder has that I don’t. They don’t hold back but I take it all in.

Is it just me?

Sometimes it feels like it. But probably not.

I pick my head up and watch Pursuit of Happyness for some feel-good, inspirational quotes from Chris Gardener.

“Don’t ever let somebody tell you that you can’t do something. If you want something, go get it. Period.”

Not sure public sector tendering quite works like that. But he clearly knows how it feels to send off a proposal.

“Probably means there’s a good chance. Possibly means we might or we might not.”


Related reads:

A tongue-in-cheek look at rejection in the research industry ~ DJS Research

Why agencies that lose need feedback ~ Rubber Cheese

Need a research proposal which may or may not be any good?