Commissioning Series: #1 Limiting the word count: sensible practice or losing valuable information?

This blog is an overview, containing the drawbacks of limiting the word-count when procuring services. Unlike the rest of this series, this is exclusively from the perspective of a provider.

Words are important

In a tender, everything you say matters. It is understandable when commissioners limit word counts. Most of the commissioners we have worked with and that I speak to on a regular basis suggest that the limiting of the number of words per question is a good thing for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, it prevents people flooding their tenders with as much information and marketing material as they can – the scattergun approach. Secondly, it means that they do not have to spend 5 times as long as they need to going through the tomes that might otherwise be sent in.

Is this a bad thing? It’s a bad thing in that you, the commissioner, have to do a lot of work deciphering whether, somewhere in all that information, is the answer to the question you asked. It is also daunting and time consuming. But it is actually providing you with key information about each provider. If they send lots of extraneous and useless information to you in a tender, what will they be like at communicating with the people they are bidding to serve? Clear, concise and engaging communication is something you should be looking for. The downsides of restricting a wordcount (coming up!) do not outweigh the upsides. Even the downside (time and deciphering the tomes) is really an upside – it is telling you that they struggle to provide relevant information when it matters.

The main downside of restricting the wordcount

There is one significant downside of restricting the wordcount in an important tender. You miss out on vital information that allows you to determine the nuance between the services. If you take weight management as an example. All providers are going to be telling you they meet NICE guidance, are evidence-based and outline what they can deliver. But how do you know what the differences are without giving providers time and space to actually tell their story?

My previous blog [ ] described in brief that there is a difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. But in reality, there is also a difference in the quality of evidence informing each service that simply cannot be conveyed in a few hundred words. At BeeZee Bodies, we have a detailed description of all of the evidence that underpins out service. You may or may not want to see this evidence, but this is the part that makes this a science – i.e. evidence based! You get a chance to see all of our assumptions about the way we have constructed our service, the evidence that informs those assumptions, and the evidence we have to prove it works. You can always just take our word for it, but that isn’t the most scientific!

But, with an adequate word count (or no limit), you get so see how we construct the ‘art’ to actually make it work. Seeing the way we speak, how clearly we communicate and the imagery we use, gives you an idea of how we will bring the science into fruition through the artful delivery style we use.

You don’t know what you don’t know

The purpose of the procurement process is to learn about the providers and what they think is possible within the specification you have created. If you knew exactly what you wanted and how you wanted it to be delivered, you could have designed a service in house. The benefit of going out to the markets is to give organisations an opportunity to wow you with the things that are possible. You can’t know everything that has been achieved by all providers. Give them a chance to tell their story and sell the reality of their service in their own style and tone. This gives you more useful information than a tick box exercise conducted in sterile conditions. That isn’t how the people you are serving live their lives, so why commission a service without the full picture about how they will engage others?


The downside of potentially reading large tomes and deciphering the information within them is actually an advantage to you as a commissioner. It is a sensible risk to take, given the significant upsides that can arise. If you are a commissioner who genuinely wants to get into the detail and get a feel for who they will be working with for the next 3/5/10 years, don’t limit the wordcount. You might be pleasantly surprised!


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