Purpose and fundamentals of effective criteria writing

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

In procurement, the principle of “think before you act” is crucial to avoid increased risk and uncertainty. We advocate for thorough upfront planning to understand objectives, risks and threats, ensuring a smooth execution and confident bid selection. Evaluation criteria are essential for fair, transparent selection, providing a clear audit trail and preventing superficial decisions. They communicate priorities to suppliers and align with our values and needs. Effective criteria address current measurable elements, qualitative objectives and future requirements. Our approach helps clients navigate procurement complexities, making informed, deliberate decisions for optimal outcomes.

Think before you act

The first thing we’ll go through are purpose and fundamentals of criteria writing. One of the most critical aspects is quite simple – think before you act.

A traditional approach is you’ve got to buy something, you don’t have a lot of time, let’s get on with it, start writing criteria, start weighting, produce that RFP and get it out the door. Time is of the essence.

The problem with that is if you don’t spend time planning and preparing risk, uncertainty and doubt will creep more and more into your procurement design until you get to the point of release – the highest point of risk, uncertainty and doubt. You don’t know what you’re going to get or what you’re going to receive as bids, and you really aren’t sure what your best possible outcome is or even if it’s going to be achieved.

What we help clients do is to really do that deep thinking upfront, to spend a lot of time in the problem space. Consider what we’re trying to accomplish, how we’re trying to accomplish it, what are the risks and threats to that and spend more time planning and preparing. The execution gets easier and easier as you go, then at the decision point, when we’re finally selecting a bid, we’re very confident that it’s going to achieve our best possible outcome.

Why do we need evaluation criteria?

Why do we need evaluation criteria? It’s a simple question. But evaluation criteria serve a number of purposes.

Simply, they help us create a basis that’s fair, open and transparent that allows us to select which of our potential proposals we’ll be awarding a contract to.

It helps us maintain a data trail and audit for that rationale and why we’re selecting one bidder over another.

It helps us prevent doing things like just getting seduced by that exciting presentation and helps us focus on designing procurements that identify those elements which are valuable to us and against which we want to award competition points.

I would also suggest that our criteria are a means by which we communicate with our potential suppliers, by which we tell them what is important to us, why it’s important, and to what degree it’s important.

We need to be fair, certainly in public procurement to the bidders and the bidding community. But we also need to be fair to ourselves and identify those things where potentially there is one bidder in the marketplace who is outstanding in a certain area, but if that’s valuable to us, we’re not being unfair to the other bidders if we say we’re going to award more points for that, that’s being fair to us and to the people we represent.

Procurements are complex and becoming increasingly so in the future, and we need to have complex frameworks to address that and to help us make complex decisions.

Key considerations for criteria development

One thing that you’ll hear me say is that criteria and requirements are different. Requirements are those elements that define what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s usually broken up into two groups, essential and desirable, those things that we need.

If we’re buying a car, it must have wheels, it’s got to have a steering wheel, it’s got to have a battery, it’s got to have an engine. It’s got to do those things or we’re not going anywhere, it’s just not functional as a car.

Then there’s things that we would like to have that are desirable, that we would ascribe more value to if a vehicle had those things. We want the turbo exhaust because it sounds great. We want an automatic transmission so we can drink our pumpkin spiced latte and keep our hands on the wheel. We want the emergency brake assist, so we protect the little kittens in the back and stop more safely on ice or in dangerous conditions. These things add value to us, and we’d be willing to pay more money or award more competition points to a vehicle that had these.

But criteria are how we decide. It’s the method by which we decide whether our requirements are going to be met, how we get confidence that the vehicle we procure is going to achieve our required performance objectives and criteria fall into three generic categories.

Those criteria which focus on a requirement that can be measured specifically today, we can go to a car, and we can measure whether it has wheels or not. That’s quite simple and in those cases the criteria often match our requirements very closely. But there’s a different kind of criteria which are focused on objectives or qualitative things such as user experience or the responsiveness of a car that are a little bit more intangible, still important to us, but you can’t measure them in the same way. If you try to measure them in a very quantitative way, you’re likely to make mistakes. There’s a third type, which is those promise of requirements being met in the future. We want to get assurance that the car we buy is going to be delivered in the colour that we want or if we’re buying a fleet of cars that they’re going to be produced on time and to budget.

We’re seeing more and more in complex procurements, that there are future requirements which we want to have assurance that they’ll be met but that are very difficult to do. There are always contract measures that can be put in place to do this such as liquidated damages by which you can award a new contract or cancel a competition, but often it’s too late. It can result in being billions of dollars into a procurement before you realise that it’s going to be over budget and late as many contracts are. What we want to do much better is evaluate those things using focus criteria that will give us confidence of those future behaviours/requirements being met. By their very nature, they’re difficult to do, they’re imperfect measures, and we shouldn’t be shy about that. These imperfect measures are necessary to help us get confidence that future requirements will be met.

For more on how to write effective criteria, watch our webinar recording