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A Brief History of Procurement

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The tendering process that we use today may, to an outsider, seem baffling. Any bid writer will tell you about the looks of confusion that they have received when answering the seemingly simple question “so, what do you do?” It often helps to take the enquirer back to square one rather than jumping in and bandying about terms like PQQ writing and bid management.

When I’m asked what I do for a living, I tend to draw upon a hypothetical contracting authority which wants to build a hypothetical hospital. Hypothetical construction firms make bids and whoever presents the strongest case wins the hypothetical work.

Generally, this example gets the point across quite well. Sometimes, however, the blank gaze continues. “Oh. So you build hospitals?” Maybe in these cases it’d be helpful to travel back further than square one, back to square zero.

The earliest known evidence of procurement dates back to approximately 2800 B.C., when an order for “50 jars of fragrant smooth oil” was placed in Syria. Written on a red clay tablet, the order also features the quoted price: “600 small weight in grain”.

Money

Clearly, a lot of refinement to this procurement system is necessary. To hark back to the hypothetical hospital, the NHS Trust would probably find that harvesting and transporting enough grain to exchange for construction services would be a tall order. What’s needed is an intermediate commodity to represent value – money.

Using money makes the process much easier and more transparent for the contracting authority, which doesn’t have to decide whether they should opt for the bidder who made their price proposal in conches, pigs or wheat.

Similarly, even the most highly experienced bid writer would struggle to write an adequate description of an Environmental Management System on a single stone tablet. Anybody who is experienced in completing PQQs, bids and tenders will have, at times, felt frustrated with online portals and unwieldy PDF files. However, bidders today have a much easier time than the Syrian producers of fragrant smooth oil in 2800 B.C. who had to upload their .ZIP files onto a clay slab.

Developments in exchange systems and technology mean that the bid and tender process as it exists today is effective, competitive and transparent. It is an easy and fair way to marry supply and demand in public procurement, and it couldn’t be further removed from archaic barter systems if it tried. Saying all this when asked “so, what do you do?” is liable to make people more rather than less confused, though.

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