Squashing the SSQ

The Standard Selection Questionnaire, or SSQ (sometimes just SQ), is an early obstacle you’ll face when bidding for public sector work. It replaces the earlier PQQ, though you still see the old name used occasionally. The SSQ is a set of questions to shortlist access to a full tender.

You’ll normally complete the SSQ alongside your full tender response. This is good and bad. Good because it streamlines and shortens the tender process; the two-stage procedure taking months to complete is largely gone. Bad because the SSQ is assessed first, so if you’re excluded on that your work on the tender will be for nothing.

Fortunately, the SSQ is easy to get right. If you have the basics in place, you should sail through. If you don’t… then you probably aren’t ready for tendering just yet.

Here’s a summary of each section of the SSQ, and what you need to do to get through it:


Section 1 – Supplier Information

This is a straightforward section where you provide basic information about your company, such as status, website, address, registration number, ownership, and so on. You will be asked about sub-contractors here, so if you’re planning to sub-contract 20% or more of the final contract delivery, you’ll need to list your suppliers and their key information. This section is entirely informational, and if you answer the questions truthfully and correctly, you can’t go wrong.


Sections 2 and 3 – Mandatory and Discretionary Exclusion Grounds

Here you will face a long list of “yes/no” tick-boxes. The first half asks about criminal activities you or the organisation may have engaged in, such as corruption, fraud, and child labour. The second half is focused on breaches of obligations, conflicts of interest, and financial misconduct. It almost goes without saying that you should be saying “no” to all these questions. Don’t lie, and if you must answer “yes”, you will need to provide an explanation of what happened, and why the buyer can be assured it won’t happen again. Fortunately, none of my clients have ever said “yes”, and I’m sure the same applies to you!

One thing to watch out for is that some authorities word the questions slightly differently, so that a “yes” is the answer you want. For example, they might ask if you have met all your financial obligations. Take extra care on this section when reading the questions, ensuring you’re clear on whether a “yes” or “no” is needed to pass the SSQ.


Section 4 – Financial Standing

The buyer needs to be sure that you’ll be around to deliver their contract. They do this by checking your financials to make sure you aren’t heading towards insolvency. Normally, an SSQ will ask you how you will demonstrate this, which you can do in several ways. You might provide your accounts, a statement of turnover, or a letter from the bank. Sometimes proof doesn’t have to be provided until after the tender process is complete, but many times you’ll need to send it along with your tender.

They will also ask that you meet their minimum level of turnover. I haven’t seen too many tenders that require this, however some will state, for example, that the contract value must be no more than 20% of your turnover. This will be set out in the specification; if you can’t find it, there is no requirement. It’s good practice to bid for contracts of a relative size in any case.


Section 5 – Parent Company

Here you simply need to provide details of your parent company, if you have one. The parent company may be required to provide guarantees. This is informational, so I have no advice for you!


Section 6 – Technical and Professional Ability

This is where you have the most to gain or lose on the SSQ: references. You will need to provide two or more (usually three; sometimes up to five) contract examples. You need to say who the customer is, how long you’ve worked with them, how much the work is worth, and what work you do. You’ll also need to provide contact details of someone at the organisation who the buyer can contact to confirm your information (they usually don’t).

Make sure your contract examples are from the last three years, and make them as relevant as possible to the contract you’re bidding for. For example, if the buyer is a Local Authority, list the different Councils with which you’ve worked. If it’s an NHS buyer, focus on healthcare examples.

The same goes for the value of the contract. If you’re bidding for something worth £1 million, but all your references are worth £50,000, the buyer may have reservations about your ability to deliver. Avoid this by using contracts of equal or greater value to the tender.

If you can’t provide the specified number of references, then I’m sorry to say you’re in a bad position. There is a space to explain why you can’t provide them, such as being a new start-up, but the reality is that without good references, it’s easy for a buyer to exclude you out of hand.

You don’t need to be too detailed when it comes to describing the contract. The buyer wants to know what you did, and how it relates to their contract. It’s quite sufficient to simply list the services provided, so long as they are relevant. If you want to get into a winning mindset, however, you should also provide an example of where you excelled on the contract. For example, if you managed to save the reference customer some money, or helped them through a challenge, you should mention this. It won’t win any extra marks, but it will sit in the assessor’s opinion of your company, and may help when they come to mark the full tender.


Section 7 – Modern Slavery Act 2015

If your turnover is below £36 million, you can tick “N/A” and move on. That’s it. If you’re above £36 million, you need to provide a link to the page on your website that reports your progress against modern slavery.


Section 8 – Insurance and Additional Questions

In this final section of the SSQ, you will need to confirm you have (or will have when awarded the contract) the specified levels of insurance. You may need to provide proof, so prepare to send in copies of your insurance certificates.

The buyer may also have added a range of other questions in the last section. They might ask about training, social value, or your experience. Generally, however, these questions will be reserved for the tender itself.