15 March 2012 | John Doyle
Maintaining Afghanistan’s Camp Bastion requires a unique set of skills so when the MoD outsourced the role, it first put bidders through rigorous paces.
Camp Bastion is the UK forces’ main base in Afghanistan, located in Helmand province. In 2005, development at the site was virtually nil. Now it supports around 21,000 military and civilian staff and is a temporary home for around 2,000 British forces personnel. The camp is four miles long and two miles wide. As the logistics hub for military operations in the region, its airfield is busier than either Stansted or Luton airports.
It is run by British forces, but maintaining and developing the infrastructure is a massive job and support is outsourced to a private sector ‘infrastructure support provider’ (ISP). The ISP provides a wide range of services, from maintaining vital power supplies and accommodation through to maintaining aircraft runways and servicing logistics.
This role requires a lot of ‘soft’ competences and skills to work effectively in this environment, which presented a challenge to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) when sourcing an ISP.
The DIO needed the contractor to demonstrate it fully appreciated the reality of the operating environment and the logistical challenges in supplying resources across continents into Camp Bastion. It needed to demonstrate sensitivity to different organisational and national cultural differences. Critically, it required evidence the ISP’s management was a highly effective team and able to provide high quality leadership. The ISP also needed to demonstrate it was able to work in close collaboration with military personnel on the ground, and with a range of military and civilian customers.
The National Audit Office has shown ‘soft’ issues – such as people, culture and collaboration – can make or break the success of a project. The challenge for the procurement team was how to test these intangible qualities when evaluating bidders and how to ensure areas for attention or improvement in soft competences could be addressed effectively with the winner.
The procurement team refined the list of soft skills and behavioural requirements, which would make up 10 per cent of the marks for a contract worth circa £150 million, to:
- Management and leadership
- Team working
- Collaboration and partnering ability
- Strategic decision-making skills
- Stakeholder management and engagement
- Managing effectively in the theatre of operations
- ‘Factor X’ – an objective measure of the level of trust engendered by the team during the assessment.
Traditional procurement methods of evaluation can be limited and ineffective in assessing such areas. The reality often only becomes apparent after the contract is signed. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) team decided to apply the Soft Issues Assessment Centre (SIAC) process, which has also been used for projects including the Olympics, construction, IT and nuclear decommissioning. Consultancy B2Bppm was appointed to design and deliver the SIAC.
The SIAC works by bringing together personnel from the bidding organisation and the client team, putting them in a room and simulating realistic future project challenges in authentic conditions. An important aspect of the SIAC approach is it minimises scope for prior rehearsal by bidders and assesses performance against pre-determined and specific behavioural measures. It also controls the environment to comply with UK and international assessment centre best practice to ensure the evaluation feedback is robust and reliable.
As one procurement team member said, it allowed the contracting authority to refine the bidder’s team if individuals should prove to be unsuitable without affecting the company’s overall bid.
The SIAC took place in Glasgow, with representatives from the five bidding organisations. Each fielded a team of up to seven representatives of strategic and operational managers who would work on the contract if successful. The MoD provided a comparable team to work alongside them.
Military personnel helped purchasers draw up challenges to ensure they reflected those a successful ISP would encounter. Some of the challenges followed up on themes and requirements raised in dialogue, providing both sides with additional facilitated information on key issues.
The challenges incorporated situations including operational factors, such as a critical piece of equipment being lost or damaged and managing competing stakeholder interests; disruptions, such as removing key members of the supplier team to see if it affected leadership; and also cultural or sensitive challenges, such as how they would manage local worker requests for cohabitation with partners on a closed base. The six-person assessment team comprised B2Bppm consultants and client and stakeholder personnel trained for the process to ensure consistency in scoring. Following each workshop, a consensus scoring process was undertaken, leading to a moderation session that finalised scores and qualitative evidence.
The Afghanistan ISP competition – and sister processes for ISPs at bases in Cyprus, the South Atlantic and Gibraltar – adopted lessons from previous exercises. Chief among these were the positioning of the SIAC before the final tender submission, which allowed feedback given to vendors to refine their bid and inform the content of submissions.
In the view of Major Gavin Brown, one of the military customers taking part: “[The SIAC] did highlight those that understood the environment and those that did not. It was held prior to the final submission of the tender bids and therefore acted as a clarification process whereby the client could reinforce key tenets of the requirement and the bidders could test out their planned solutions to the requirement, without commitment. I suspect as a result the bids were more focused.”
Last year, the DIO awarded the Afghanistan ISP contract to project management firm KBR. Gareth Jones, programme manager, said: “The SIAC was taxing, with a range of realistic and time-limited scenarios designed to assess our ability to interact effectively in a collaborative, open manner. The scenarios generated focused feedback from the MoD, which provided clarity on its key issues and concerns. It undoubtedly influenced our proposal.”
The Afghanistan ISP assessments provide lessons that can be generally applied where procurement teams wish to appoint a delivery partner with critical qualities. A key lesson is the need for a sound business case for using an SIAC. This should only happen when two or more of the following apply.
- There is a requirement for close collaboration and partnering between contractor and client.
- Where project challenges are complex and need ongoing mutual problem solving and team work.
- Where soft skills and competences are a project critical success factor.
- Where the contractor has key roles in unsupervised management of key end-user or stakeholder relationships.
- There is a need for a high level of mutual trust between contractor and client.
☛ John Doyle is a director at B2Bppm