Pre-election purdah and tendering
[Edited November 2019 to add: Following advice from Harini Iyengar, Lead London Assembly Candidate at Women’s Equality Party, I am adding this update to note that the use of the word ‘purdah’ is no longer acceptable to me (and hopefully, everyone, more widely over time), as it is* a sexist offensive tradition in the Middle East and South Asia which required upper-class women to be physically secluded, kept out of sight and took away their human rights.
Should I write about the subject again, I will instead use the word ‘sequestration’, as this is** a term mostly used in law meaning to isolate, hold apart or remove something and was used prior to the misappropriation of the word ‘purdah’).
(I’m slightly paraphrasing the actual words of both *Harini Iyengar and **Alison Smith here; I recommend reading the entire thread and replies)
However, I’m keeping the original post as-is, so that it is clear where and how I have used and understood this term historically.]
General elections always seems to cause ripples in the world of tendering, although not always in the same ways every time.
Very often, government agencies and other related publicly funded organisations find themselves taking a punt based on what the most likely outcome of an election may be – they decide to either hold tight and wait until the new government is in before tendering for certain services or they spend up while they can. Which way they go depends on the type of organisation they are and how each party’s priorities will affect them.
This year, we’re all in a funny position. No one can say with any great certainty who is likely to win – even the bookies are hedging their bets somewhat – or whether we might end up with a hung parliament which, as no party seems keen on forming another coalition, could result in a further general election later this year.
In addition, this particular general election comes with its own new set of circumstances. Historically, once the incumbent prime minister announces the date of a general election and parliament is dissolved, a period of pre-election ‘purdah’ comes into force and remains in place until that date.
What is ‘purdah’?
Purdah is a set of restrictions on the activities of civil servants, put in place to ensure no funny business occurs between the announcement and the election. The exact nature of the restrictions may be different for each pre-election period but the general gist is the same and boils down to ‘remain neutral’. Organisations and the civil servants within them must take care not to be, or to be perceived as being, favourable to one political party over another. Guidance is issued to civil servants as the election draws nearer;
the guidance to civil servants for this particular pre-election period has not yet been announced (they should probably get their skates on) [Updated: Here it is]
However, the date of this (and subsequent) general election was already set in stone, way back in 2011, with the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. With that, the period of purdah was also fixed (well fixed, then later amended) and stands at 25 working days prior to the date of the general election.
What does this mean for tendering?
During the pre-election purdah period, the current government and various affiliated organisations are somewhat prevented from tendering for or entering into new contracts. While some sources seem to understand this as meaning all tendering, as far as I understand it, it actually applies mainly to ‘large or politically contentious’ tenders. Smaller, less politically charged tenders do have some allowance for continuing to run during this period.
Also, some publically funded organisations exist either to specifically provide oversight of political neutrality or to provide services which depend on political neutrality. These organisations would, it might be reasonably assumed, not be subject to or expected to follow purdah guidance.
However, while purdah is a woolly-edged political convention designed primarily to avoid accusations of shenanigans and not an enforceable ‘law’, many organisations will adhere to the guidance in any case, even if they are not duty bound to. Any action taken by them that could, rightly or wrongly, be construed to be following any kind of political agenda is likely to be avoided by them at this time.
This means that a slowdown in the number of tenders being published over the five-and-a-bit weeks between 30th March and 7th May is inevitable, with an almost complete halt in the publication of any tenders that could be seen to be politically motivated and/or underpinned by election manifesto promises.
So, tenders for the supply of innocuous stuff will continue – it’s unlikely that the tender for Bench Top X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometers for English Heritage due in on 1st May would cause a political stir. Large, significant or politically charged tenders almost certainly will be affected in some way, e.g. anything to do with benefits, workfare, legal aid, housing, the supply of diamond-encrusted, gold-plated hunting boots to certain high level government personnel etc.
What happens after the election?
Your guess is as good as mine. Some of more politically charged tenders will no doubt be re-run from scratch, with additional consultations and tweaking of the specification; others may disappear, never to see the light of day. A number of less exciting but still politically iffy looking tenders will spring up almost instantly (what they are will depend on who gets in) and ultimately the safest tenders will just carry on as normal as they have been.
If we do end up with a hung parliament who are unable or unwilling to form a coalition and the decision to hold another general election is made, then I would expect the tendering landscape to remain slightly barren for a little while longer.
Money will still be spent – organisations need to spend their budgets to secure their next budgets – so tendering won’t grind to a complete halt. But those budgets may be spent on some weird things over the course of 2015, while the big budget/controversial tenders may be held back.
Talk to me
I’d be interested in hearing from other bid writers, people in procurement, or others involved in the tendering process to find out more about how this general election is likely to affect you, your clients or the organisation you work for.
I’d also like to hear from suppliers, particularly SMEs, about how you see the general election affecting your business, either positively or negatively.
Likewise, any tendering anecdotes, horror stories or surprising benefits you may have experienced through previous general (or local) elections would also be good to know.
Get in touch in the comments 🙂