Terms and conditions
Pitching a port tender just right can be a minefield. Alex Hughes reports
All ports issue tenders in one form or another, but how can they ensure they get the best possible results? It's a balancing act to get the right terms in front of the right people to encourage a robust and rigorous tender process.
Tim Bownes, engineering director of the UK’s Port of Milford Haven, says that, for tenders of a reasonable size or complexity, the first step is to run a prequalification process. “We do this for three reasons," he says. "First, to ensure the quality and experience of those selected to tender will match our expectations. Second, to keep the number of tenders to a manageable level. And, third, to avoid tenderers being put to a large amount of work with only a small statistical chance of winning."
At the US Port of Tampa Bay, Bruce Laurion, vice president of engineering, notes that public announcements are always made when professional engineering services are required, with a Request For Qualification (RFQ) generally issued.
“Since the procurement process is undertaken publicly, the port does not know who will subsequently submit Letters of Interest for engineering services,” explains Mr Laurion. He adds that no engineering tenders are specifically drawn up with an aim to exclude certain companies or indeed to attract others. Instead, the port accepts Letters of Interest from all firms that submit timely proposals to its RFQ. The proposals are then reviewed by a selection committee and ranked based upon selection criteria set out in the RFQ.
Sometimes this open approach can offer up surprising responses. Louis L Jackson, director of engineering at the Port of New Orleans, explains that this sometimes elicits responses from firms or teams that it had not previously considered.
At Milford Haven, Mr Bownes points out that it is not normally in a port’s interests to specifically target or exclude particular organisations from bidding. However, there are occasions when it might have identified that a particular scope of work would suit a particular organisation or group of organisations. In such cases, it is in the port’s interests to alert them to the project in question.
Ports are also advised to learn from each tendering process, and not to re-invent the wheel on every tender. “We constantly learn from tendering processes," Mr Bownes says. "We are also tending to standardise the format of some elements of our tenders. As such, there is an element of re-use of previous tender documents, but this is always based on learning from past experience. There is very little pure repetition in the work we undertake to prepare the tender, so the opportunity and temptation to automatically re-use past documents is very limited and our project staff are all aware of the need to avoid automatic 'box-ticking'."
Mr Laurion notes that Tampa Bay does make use of a standardised RFQ procurement document, but the Scope of Work, selection criteria and specific project details are always based upon the unique requirements of each project and prepared by the port's chief engineer specifically for that project.
New Orleans says it rarely recycles documents when tendering for something new: “We try to be proactive in maintaining a pool of professional service providers, so we won't likely have this issue," says Mr Jackson. "If an agency were to routinely use this approach, there could be a case where a professional services provider is not sufficiently qualified to perform the needed work. However, since this is not a practice of this port, the chances of it occurring are very minimal.”
There is a concern that tenders in ports can sometimes be too conservative, especially when using agencies, although this is common to tenders outside of the port environs as well. This can be a sign that the agency has failed to get to the grist of the brief and could miss out on more creative solutions that could also be more cost effective.
To get around a similar problem – that of ports sometimes asking for something that is not sufficiently proven - Mr Jackson suggests that, in his experience, it is better to have a solicitation that describes the basic problem, or the need, as understood by the agency. “Engineering providers are sometimes more knowledgeable of new technology and should be allowed to apply that knowledge to provide a solution to the stated need or problem,” he says.
Mr Bownes adds that tenders need to reflect the degree to which the output of the work needs to function in its surroundings. He gives the simplified example of a cargo warehouse, which may only require a short specification to include basic dimensions and uses. In contrast, a new set of lock gates is likely to be far more tightly specified. “If a tender is insufficiently prescriptive for the function required, then it is likely the resulting work will not fully satisfy the requirements of those who use it. This can result in extended periods where defects and shortcomings are rectified and perhaps long term increases in maintenance expenditure,” he says.
On the same point, Mr Laurion notes that, normally, port engineering staff have a pretty good idea on a project's scope and needs, but on those occasions when scope is not defined well enough, or it is too prescriptive, then the proposers normally submit written questions or concerns. These questions/concerns are then evaluated by the port's procurement officer, who reviews them with the port's chief engineer, and may issue addenda or modifications to revise the RFQ accordingly.
Tried and tested?
Mr Bownes adds that ports can be tempted to opt for a particular solution because they know it works, but conversely they need to take great care when adopting innovative and potentially untried solutions. A balance needs to be struck between delivering something which fulfils the required function with the equally pressing need to deliver it at a commercially viable cost. "The trick is to get the right balance between the two,” he says.
The Port of Milford Haven uses a risk-based approach to prevent it from adopting something that is not sufficiently proven, which Mr Bownes says experience has shown works well. However, he has a caveat: “An unproven product or technique should receive a significant (and possibly exhaustive) amount of assessment before being selected or rejected. The degree of conservatism to be applied to any solution is likely to be a function of the required function of a product; the amount at stake; the consequences if it goes wrong; and the resulting cost, delay and reputational damage.”
Asked whether Tampa Bay worries it might miss out on new advances in technology by being too conservative in its tenders, Mr Laurion says that this is normally not the case as the port initially reviews the proposals based on the qualifications of the firms and engineers bidding. “Proposers usually identify new advances or technology in their submittals as part of the presentation of their qualifications and justifications as to why they should be considered the most qualified and experienced consultant for the project,” he says.
If a port asks for something that is not sufficiently proven, any submitting consultants worth their salt would question it during the pre-proposal period, he adds.
CALL IN THE CAVALRY
Ports should never be too proud to call in outside help when it comes to drafting tender documents. Indeed, experience dictates that tender writing should be a collaborative effort.
Given sufficient focus, this can result in something which has a better than the sum of the parts feel to it, where everyone has some ownership of the document.
“At the same time, it is important that an individual member of the team has overall responsibility for its production, but to a large extent it can be anyone within the team; the most important aspect is that they have the right motivation for producing the documents,” says Milford Haven's Tim Bownes.
In New Orleans, Louis L Jackson knows that as an engineer, he is confident in his knowledge of engineering principles, but he can still appreciate that better solutions come from diverse thoughts. "Engineering solicitations should be written by engineers, but with input and sufficient engagement from other professionals familiar with the needs of the agency.”
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