How to Tender – A Jargon-Free Guide to Help You Win Public Sector Business
Learning how to tender is essential if you or your company is to sell to the public sector. This article will give you a clear idea of what tenders are, how to respond to a tender, what factors you ought to consider, and how to put in an effective bid. The aim is to cut out the jargon, and give you the confidence to look at tendering as a viable means of securing work for your business.
Please bear in mind that the article is designed to meet those bidding for contracts in the public sector, though many of the issues involved are applicable to the private sector as well.
Which Organisations Use the Tendering Process
The public sector marketplace is far bigger than most people are aware. It pervades all aspects of national life and includes many organisations barely known to those outside them. A simple breakdown can be given as follows:
- Education sector – schools, colleges and universities.
- National Health Services – hospitals, regional structures, research and governmental bodies
- Ministry of Defence – army, navy and air, numerous project teams with technical specialisms, educational and housing organisations, medical, research and administrative arms.
- Local and Regional Government – councils, parish, district, borough, metropolitan and unified.
- Regional governmental structures.
- Central Government – Government Departments (includes Ministries, such as Department for Work and Pensions), Executive Agencies (smaller bodies under the responsibility of the Government Departments, some of which are nevertheless extremely big), and Non-Ministerial Public Bodies (organisations that may have a specialist technical role, eg Nuclear Decommissioning Authority).
- Housing Associations
- Utility Companies
- Transport organisations (such as Network Rail Infrastructure)
- Public Corporations (example: Nuclear Liabilities Fund). Includes independent trading entities set up by public bodies – these can be commercial enterprises on a local, regional or national level. [Public Service Mutuals are private businesses set up by the public sector to deliver public services; though tenders are issued in relation to these it should be noted that once established they are no longer in the public sector.]
Size of the UK Public Sector Marketplace
The latest figures from the Government Procurement Service say that the public sector market is worth £84 billion.
The pipelines show over 1,700 potential contracting opportunities across 18 sectors including construction, clinical and medical, police services, energy and utilities, vehicles and now financial services and waste management. For the first time, there are also pipelines for the NHS and Fire and Emergency Services.
UK Trade and Investment estimate that public sector ICT expenditure in the country is worth £18 billion (out of a nationwide total of £140 billion, which is one of the largest in Europe).
In 2010 the expenditure for the Ministry of Defence with UK industry alone was £14 billion. Details for total expenditure for MOD are given here:
To put it succintly, the public sector spends an enormous amount with suppliers every year and will continue to do so, even as the country’s fiscal problems are dealt with, because it needs to in order to function.
Why do Business with the Government?
It’s a stable market. It will never go away. During a recession it offers a reliable source of business, and during a boom it offers ever expanding opportunities. But one thing is certain, it will still be a gigantic multibillion pound marketplace no matter what happens in the future.
The payment terms can be extremely good. Payment within 30 days is normal. The Prompt Payment Terms of HM Government are actually very generous to suppliers as they recommend quick payment so they don’t have problems with cashflow and it helps maintain a stable supply chain.
The Government wants to deal with more companies so it can have a diversity of suppliers and thus receive better products and services at a better price. For the past 10 years it has taken repeated steps to encourage more and more SMEs into the public sector marketplace.
There’s a vast amount of money to be made! Working with the government can be the difference between prospering or going to the wall.
Common Misconceptions About Public Sector Suppliers
It’s true that the public sector is an extremely lucrative market for some of the biggest companies in the world. However, they do not dominate all of it, and in fact the vast majority of suppliers are small to medium sized businesses. Any comprehensive list of tender and contract awards will prove this is so. There has been a concerted attempt to introduce more and more suppliers to the public sector over the past 7-8 years and these efforts have recently been increased by expanding them to the realm of IT by use of the Cloudstore in Central Government Procurement. But, though massive opportunities exist, if a company lacks the knowledge of how to tender, then it will not be possible to secure business. It is necessary to learn how to tender in order to compete successfully in the public sector marketplace. Having said that, picking up the requisite skills is not as difficult as is sometimes presented – it can even be said that once the basics are learned, dealing with the public sector can often be a matter of using one’s commonsense to put forward the best case for the products and services one’s company provides.
What Level of Business is Being Targeted?
Does your company want to bid for low, medium or high level work? Are you a small company operating on a local basis, or a large corporation operating across the entire country? Or something in between? The bidding process is different for different types of business. A Request for Quote worth £1500 may only require the completion of a couple of sides of paper, asking the simplest of questions. A £5 million tender may require completing a questionnaire first, followed by extensive supporting documentation just to be considered for the work.
One of the first steps any company needs to take is to assess its abilities and decide what type of business it wants to compete for. Even a big company may only want to start off small. However, it is best to be clear about one’s objectives to compete effectively, so that one has a realistic chance of securing contracts. If one isn’t going to try and win it’s best not to try at all.
What is a Tender?
A tender is a contract opportunity. It is a notification of work or services required, for which bids are invited. In official terms, it is a contract opportunity valued at a particular level, which must then be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union, according the rules first set down in the Treaty of Rome. Apart from in exceptional cases, any company from across the world can choose to put in a bid for a tender. Usually, the supplier has to complete written documents which demonstrate it can meet the requirements set out in the tender, with an offer enclosed for the specific work or services for which the tender was advertised. It is often the case that more than one supplier may produce a winning bid, because a tender may need to have multiple suppliers to fulfil its objectives.
Using a looser definition, a tender may simply mean a contract opportunity for which written bids are required. This article will deal mostly with tenders in official terms – that is, a high level contract valued at a set amount defined by the European Union. However, potential suppliers will find the information directly relevant to low and medium level contracts, as these are often simplified versions of the normal tendering process. Don’t get over-awed by tenders – when all is said and done they are just the means by which the public sector buys products or services. If you offer something the public sector wants at a reasonable price with good value for money, and can communicate that in the tender documents you have a realistic chance of winning the business.
What are the Tender Thresholds?
All contracts above the following thresholds must be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union:
Works: £4,348,3503 (€5,000,000)
Services: £173,934 (€200,000)
Works are anything construction-related. Services more or less include everything else. There is a slight difference in the threshold for Central Government (in that it’s lower) but as a general rule any tender above £113,000 has to be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. As you are probably aware, the Official Journal is the authoritative source for the advertising of high level tenders. All high level tenders must be listed in the Official Journal, according to European Law.
Different Categories of Tenders and Contracts
High Level Tenders above the thresholds previously listed
Tenders with several lots whose value rises above the thresholds when the lots are considered together. This means that the individual lots may be less than the sum value of the tender – e.g. a £1 million website contract may be divided into 10 lots of £100,000, which means that for the company bidding the contract they are trying to win is £100,000 but the overall size of the contract is £1 million. A £100,000 contract may be divided into lots of £20,000, £30,000 and £50,000. Because of this it is extremely important that tenders from the Official Journal are monitored and checked.
Standing Lists of Suppliers
Also known as Approved Lists – these may be advertised because the total value of work over 2, 3 or 5 years may exceed the European thresholds. Sometimes Standing Lists have an uncertain or undefined commercial value and the tenders are advertised to increase publicity for them.
Occasionally these are advertised to increase awareness of the contracts. They are advertised on a voluntary basis, and do not actually have to placed in the Official Journal at all. Typical examples might be for contracts costed at £30,000, £50,000 or £70,000.
Tenders for multiple suppliers to provide comprehensive services over a set term of years – e.g. building and maintenance to a council for 3 years.
Private Finance Initiative – tenders in which some of the commercial risk is shared between the public and private sectors. These may be for building and operating a hospital over a 20 year period – they are always multimillion pound tenders.
Different Types of Tender Advertisements
Prior Information Notice
This is an indication that a tender is due to be advertised during the next 12 months. It expresses an intention to advertise a tender. It may be used just to forewarn suppliers so they can consider bidding for it when it is officially advertised, or it may be used as a market testing exercise. It may state there will be a Supplier Information Day at a particular date, at a particular place. Attendance at Supplier Information Days may be extremely important, and may even be crucial to securing a tender, because the buying organisation will communicate directly with its potential suppliers in more extensive ways than it will do simply in a tender advertisement. The supplier can then gain a more in-depth knowledge of what is required, and can accurately gauge if it’s possible to win business. The buying organisation may often change its specifications according to the feedback it receives from the marketplace. If you want to learn how to tender I would strongly recommend going to Supplier Information Days; it’s one of the methods by which your company can move from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’.
This is the actual tender advertisement. It doesn’t provide the tender specifications. These will be contained in the Invitation to Tender documents, which may be obtained by contacting the buyer whose name and contact details will be listed in the tender advertisement. It is often the case that the supplier will be instructed to visit a particular website to download the Invitation to Tender documents.
There are usually two main ways to express an interest in a tender:
Read through the tender advert. At either the top or near the bottom you will see something like: ‘Further information can be obtained from’, and then either a name and contact details, or ‘The above mentioned contact point(s)’. Or, the information may be lower down and say: ‘Who to Contact’, followed by the relevant contact details. The contact details may include name, address, telephone, fax and email address. Of course it’s possible to call or to write, but most of the time – to keep their workload to manageable levels – it’s best to email them. You should write something akin to: “I would like to express an interest in (name of tender), reference number (include reference number, if one has been assigned), could you email me the relevant documents?” Your name, job title, company, telephone and email address should be included. You will then have officially registered an interest.
The other method is to express an interest directly on a website. This will entail registering and logging in. You may be asked to express an interest prior to downloading documents. It is also the case that sometimes tender documents may be downloaded without the need for registering on a website or logging into one; they may simply be freely available. Note: If you do express an interest online and are requested to register with the online tender please remember to keep your login details safe; don’t forget them, or you could run the risk of expressing an interest twice, which could cause confusion.
A Contract Award notice is essentially another advertisement, only this time stating which organisation or individual has won the tender. By law it has to be published no longer than 48 days after the tender has been awarded. Normally it will have contact details included, which can be useful if you’re considering offering your services as a subcontractor. The type of information it contains will how many companies competed, and the minimum and maximum prices put forward by the different bidders. It’s optional on the part of the awarding body to include all of this, though as a rule of thumb it’s usually freely available (exceptions being in the case of MOD tenders, which may be governed partly by the Official Secrets Act, or an equivalent rule).
Different Tendering Procedures
There are several different tendering procedures, each of which have slightly different requirements.
This type of procedure is open to any organisation that can supply the products or services indicated.
Companies have to qualify first before being invited to tender. After an expression of interest has been made, the bidding organisations are supplied with a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire, which is then assessed to determine which ones should progress to the next stage. Those that satisfactorily meet the criteria are then sent the Invitation To Tender documents.
Restricted Procedure is used when there is a specialist requirement – when particular skills are needed that not every company possesses. The PQQ (Pre-Qualification Questionnaire – you’ll hear that phrase a lot of you start bidding for work) is a means of checking that prospective suppliers can do the work they’re bidding for. It will have emphasis on technical abilities, past experience, company profiles, internal resources, etc – it’s usually more about the company that wants to put in a bid, than they the tender of the buying organisation.
I should mention that successfully completing a PQQ is very useful. If you go through the process you may often find the same organisation will come back and invite your company to bid again for future work. It happens even if your company didn’t actually win a tender. It also has a knock-on effect if you want to pursue business below the official tendering level.
This is a procedure normally used only in exceptional cases, in which the buyer invites pre-qualified suppliers to help negotiate the terms of the tender. Once a tender specification has been fully defined, the suppliers are then judged by. Complex high level tenders are often characterised by the negotiated procedure, when the specific requirements can’t be defined without supplier input, or when there are only a very small number of companies in the marketplace that can meet the needs of the tender.
Competitive Dialogue is a fairly new procedure introduced in 2006 as an alternative to Open and Restricted Procedures. It is a means by which the buyer and its prospect suppliers can discuss all aspects of a tender prior to awarding it, which is why it is so fundamentally different from the other procedures. It was designed to compensate for some of the limitations of the other methods. When a buyer doesn’t have all the technical answers to questions relevant to the tender it needs to consult with the market to define its requirements, and then to be clear about the solutions that will satisfy those requirements. Competitive Dialogue is normally only used for very complex, high level tenders.
How to Tender – Choosing to Bid
This may seem an obvious point but companies should only bid for tenders they think they can win. Choosing the wrong tender can mean wasted time and wasted money. It’s not just a question of whether one can be successful in the tendering exercise, it’s also whether the tender gives more than it takes: If you win it will it give too little profit and take up too much work? The balance between profit and investment has to be right.
- Is it too big or too small for your company? Will fulfilling it exhaust your company’s resources, or will it provide too minuscule a reward for the effort it requires? (Bear in mind, there’s nothing wrong with planning to expand your company if a tender is won – on the basis that preparation has been previously made for a strategic transformation; it’s when changes are forced on an organisation unexpectedly that problems start).
- Do the requirements of the tender fit within your company’s skillsets? Be realistic.
- Do you know to create a working partnership with another company to fulfil the tender? Eg – your company may supply photocopiers but only offer service locally; to work regionally it may need to subcontract another company to provide service regionally.
- Does your company possess both the time and finances to fulfil the tender? It may be you have another big contract which demands your company’s full resources at particular times of the year which prevent taking on additional business. How would winning the business fit alongside your current work?
These are all commonsensical issues that any company has to deal with when bidding for work – whether from the public sector or the private sector. The key is to think in terms of public sector as potentially repeat business; that you will be developing a relation that will last over many years, so you wish to provide the service you would provide to any valued customer.
How to Tender – Find Out What the Client Wants
If you’re bidding for a large tender (above £100,000) or a large sub-OJEU contract (above £50,000) you need to find out as closely as you can what the client actually wants. Sometimes there may be unhappiness with a current supplier – for which there may be a very specific reason. Sometimes there may be a need for a new technology, or new service that’s not been used by the organisation before. Try and discover what the buyer is looking for. This may require a little bit of historical research. Knowledge of the current supplier and their strengths and weaknesses may be critical information for you in choosing to put in a bid. If there’s a Supplier Open Day (usually mentioned in Prior Information Notices) try and attend it, to get a real sense of the buyer and their priorities. It’s often the case that would be suppliers misread what public sector bodies are looking for by not listening to what they have to say. It can be done. Most successful suppliers I’m aware have a clear understanding of the character of their public sector clients, which is much more than just reading tender adverts published in the Official Journal.
Commodities are usually the only things for which the lowest price is regarded as enough to win the contract. Whole life costs always have to be taken into account when a purchasing decision is made. That should be built into the pricing structure in completed bids. Whole life costs are additional factors besides the bare cost:
- Maintenance and Usage. To use the example of reprographics again – the cost of a photocopier on its own may be £700, which would be cheap, but if the cost per copy for black and white printing is 10 pence per sheet, then the overall cost of the copier over its lifetime usage will be exorbitantly higher than the original outlay. Therefore buying a photocopier for £1000 could work out cheaper. When the volume of printing is 50,000 copies per quarter the economics of spending more to save will not be lost on public sector buyers.
- Servicing. Does the machine sole require servicing? Photocopiers regularly need parts removing and replaced. The annual service costs, or individual service visits, may make a cheap photocopier inordinately expensive.
It is possible to carry on down this line of argument, but I’m sure you understand the gist of what is being said. Think of your own sector or industry and determine what the whole life costs are.
It should be noted, if whole life costs are not stated explicitly, sometimes they can be missed by the buyer. The Invitation to Tender documents should be used as guidance – they normally give a set weighting to particular factors: For example, outright cost may be 50%, maintenance and servicing may be 25%, environmental issues may be 15%, and the calibre of the company, including professional expertise, similar clients, and financial stability may make up 10%. It can then be concluded that cost, though important, would not be enough on its win a contract. The other matters have to be taken into account as well.
Structure of Tender Documents
Tender documents are usually have the following structure:
- Covering Letter
- Contents Page
- Some Background Information
- Technical Specifications
- Main Response Form
- Terms and Conditions
- Award Criteria
The Instructions will include deadlines for Expression of Interest, Submission of Documents, Presentation of Bid (that’s if there’s a requirement to give a presentation or demonstration), Opening of the Documents, Award Date, and Communication with Suppliers, once the winning bid has been ascertained. There should also be information on an Appeal Procedure, should you think your company has been treated unfairly, and the bidding process was not impartial. The Award Criteria should give a clear definition of the criteria by which the tender will be awarded. These are usually defined by points or percentages, as indicated in the section on pricing. The Appendices may request company information – Accounts, Health and Safety, Environmental, Equal Opportunities and other policies, as well as professional certificates and qualifications gained by the company. It’s a good idea to have company information prepared and kept up to date, so you you don’t have to go through additional work every time you bid for a tender.
Suppliers need to respond to the tender in the manner indicated in the documents. At first they may look confusing, but after a while they will be straightforward. Remember, buyers are only human and occasionally make mistakes – if there are apparent mistakes in the documents, re-check them, then look at any questions that have been asked by other bidders (you may often find these online on a web page designated by the buyer) or ask the buyer directly. Keep in mind, though, this is a commercial process, and if you misunderstand the documents you may ask a question that will be viewed publicly by other bidders which may put your company at a disadvantage: Don’t disclose information prejudicial to your business. In addition to the above document you may also be requested to provide the following:
- An Alternative Proposal
- Case Studies (where applicable)
- Biographies of Team Members
It’s regularly the case that buyers ask for alternative solutions to the ones they offer themselves. This is usually when the buyer is aware of different methods for meeting the contractual requirements, however it can occasionally be suggested by suppliers themselves. In the latter case, it’s very important the supplier asks permission to provide an alternative proposal. The alternative proposal must always be physically separate from the main proposal, to avoid confusion.
References and Case Studies are to be sent in to give credence to the supplier’s bid – to show they possess the necessary expertise to fulfil the terms of the tender. They should, therefore, be tailored to the bid, or the organisation showing how the supplier has met the requirements of similar institutions in similar situations. Relevance is the key here. A great reference of itself may avail little if it does not genuinely apply to the buyer. Make sure references are used intelligently, with the aim of enhancing the reputation of the bidder, and demonstrating that the capacity to meet the required business needs is clear.
Preparation of Tender Documents
Tender documents need to be printed and not handwritten. It’s often the case that tender bids need to be bound, in order to make them as presentable as possible. The writing style should be precise, using short sentences, an explanation of all abbreviations (at the least the first time they are brought up), and without any long-winded explanations. Straightforward English is better than a complex, convoluted style. Avoid colloquialisms, as well.
Many potential suppliers make the mistake of not asking questions. If something is unclear in the ITT and clarification can’t be found in any of the communications to and from the buyer, then ask. It is best to ask all questions in one go, rather one after another, after another. All questions are sent to other bidders as well – a fact previously mentioned – so say enough without saying too much.
- Tendering is an anonymous process – with occasional exceptions – and so envelopes containing bids need to be unmarked, without any company or product logos to prevent identification of the bidder. This maintains the impartiality of the process and stops favouritism.
- The covering letter should be written on company stationery.
- Tender bids must be typed rather than handwritten.
- The right number of copies should be sent. It’s often the case that multiple copies are required by decision-makers. The exact number will be specified in the tender documents.
- Deadlines must be met. Tender bids are rejected if they do not reach their destination on time. It’s not unusual for tender deadlines to be extended, but when that happens all bidders are informed of the date change.
- Contact personnel must be clearly defined – with telephone, fax, email and address details. If there is a tender team putting in the bid there should be a single point of liaison to avoid confusion.
- Tender documents should be compiled in a neat, attractive, presentable fashion. It should be easy to tell which is the covering letter, which the actual bid, which the references, etc.
- Whether successful or unsuccessful, suppliers should always seek feedback on their bid. Those who’ve been unsuccessful need to know why, without applying guesswork. It is extraordinary the number of suppliers who’ve been successful one time and then failed another, who do not clearly know why their fortunes have been so different. Buyers are actually legally obliged under European law to give feedback; don’t neglect the opportunity for increasing your business intelligence. It may be helpful on another occasion.
Preparing Information on your Company and its Services
Government organisations need to know that all suppliers are obeying the law and acting within the legal and ethical constraints of current legislation. Because it’s public money they are spending, they need to be certain they are buying from good quality companies that do not discriminate against their employees or potentially harm them by making them work in a dangerous environment. Suppliers therefore have to prove they meet the requirements of the public sector, which are in part demonstrated by the business policies they have compiled. The main policies are as follows:
- Health and Safety
- Equal Opportunities
- Data Protection
Don’t panic if your company hasn’t drawn these up, there are many organisations from which it’s possible to buy template documents which can used to fulfil the standard criteria, often very cheaply. You can also search online for council websites which offer free copies for download. (You can use the search terms template equality and diversity or template health and safety to locate free versions you can copy and use for your business. Note: Some of these policies may only be 2 pages long.)
Obviously, information on your company and its services will also need to be supplied:
- Product and Service Information (including Technical Specifications)
- Biographies of Team Members
- Copies of Certificates or Accreditations from Professional Organisations
- Information on Partners and / or Subcontractors
- Case Studies (when applicable)
Issues Relating to Accounts
It’s often the case that would-be suppliers are asked to provide 3 years’ copies of accounts, and this can present a major stumbling block for small organisations that have only recently started trading. It’s not insuperable; on many occasions it can be overcome by offering an alternative financial view of the company.
If 3 years’ accounts aren’t available, do you have 2 years’ accounts? If not 2 years’ accounts do you have 1 years’ accounts? If you’ve only recently started the company do you have a Business Plan, with financial projections for the forthcoming years?
Where the buyer isn’t under a strict necessity of ensuring 3 years’ accounts are available, you will find they will be happy to accept a professional Business Plan, that shows the company is on a firm footing and can deliver on any contracts it wins. Remember, the aim of the public sector isn’t to penalise small companies – who make up the vast majority of public sector suppliers – the aim is to ensure that if a contract is awarded the winner can meet its obligations. It’s no good paying for a product delivery in a month’s time if the supplier goes out of business next week. The general attitude of most buyers is to encourage SMEs and to try to give them a reasonable opportunity to bid for contracts. There are actually government policies recommending that all areas of the public sector do more business with small companies (Cabinet Office’s Lean Review into Procurement Processes, SME product surgeries, Prompt Payment Terms, Small Business Concordat, etc). The door is well and truly open to SMEs if they are prepared to learn how to tender effectually.
If you’re a subcontractor there are a number of ways in which public sector work may be found. For a start, some private sector companies that have previously won tenders, offer specific subcontracting opportunities. The nature of the contract will be specified in the advert. But the main method most use is through monitoring Contract Awards and marketing directly to the successful bidders. The other method is to use the lists operated by the Government Procurement Service (it used to be called the Office for Government Commerce) for Government Frameworks, and then to do the same again.
Here are some useful URLs:
http://gps.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/i-am-supplier/find-a-supplier (list of suppliers to Government Framework Agreements).
http://gps.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/i-am-buyer/find-a-product-or-service (this is a generic search for products with their suppliers)
Construction companies can register on the Constructionline website, which is the official UK register of pre-qualified suppliers for constructions tenders and contracts.
Individual organisations as well as purchasing consortia regularly advertise standing lists – or approved lists – of suppliers, which are used for maintaining an ongoing database of contacts. They’re operated on a cyclic basis – eg for 12 months, or 36 months. Government Online regularly advertises approved lists of suppliers along with tenders. They can be accessed free of charge at www.government-online.net/government-tenders/.
Requesting Copies of Successful Tenders Under the Freedom of Information Act
Theoretically, it is possible to request copies of successful tenders under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In practise, it is a little more difficult to get hold of them, as it’s something of a hit and miss affair as to whether the organisation contacted may consider the completed tenders to be confidential information or not. When applications are successful it will be found that personal identifying details have been blanked out, however it’s still very useful to obtain copies of completed tenders even with these limitations. Seeing a winning bid can be extremely helpful in clarifying what one should and should not write in tender documents.
There are always complaints’ procedures for every tender, whether it is overly stated in the advertisement or not. If it isn’t it will be possible to find out who to complain to by contacting the purchasing officer responsible for the tender. There’s usually and address with appropriate details for complaints on the lower half of each tender advertisement.
In conclusion, suppliers need to systematise the tendering process: that means choosing the right tender, allocating effect resources to it, having company, product and policy information prepared, asking relevant questions, preparing and, if necessary, presenting the bid, post-tender analysis, contract monitoring if successful, and then repeating the process. Each bid should add to the sum of corporate knowledge. Don’t be put off by paperwork; once you understand it preparing a bid will become like second nature. Every company that offers a good quality product or service can succeed in the public sector, if its resources are marshalled effectively, and if the advantages of doing business with it are communicated in a convincing and attractive manner.
Need to find tenders for your business? Free access to the latest tenders at: www.government-online.net/government-tenders/
Administrator, Government Online
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