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Jisc bid writing

Today I submitted a JISC bid on behalf of a team, as part of the recent JISC call Infrastructure for Education and Research (’15/10′ to its friends). The call was actually a set of broadly related different strands, we submitted (with a whole 30 mins to spare) under a strand called Infrastructure for Resource Discovery, and there’s a nice web based version of the call on Jiscpress.

Jiscpress was created in part by Joss Winn and a post of his I saw today inspired me to knock out this this rambling.  Go read it before you read this, thanks.

I admire his openness and I should strive to do the same. Funny that I try – and to an extent automatically do – make much of what I do open, but with this sort of thing there is a tendency to keep it close to your chest. There were very few tweets in the run up to the bid. Why are we not more open? He also talks about his JISC bid writing and tips, here’s mine.

My first experience was attending a ‘town hall meeting’ in Birmingham about the JISC Capital programme, around 2006. For a starts I didn’t even know what a Town hall meeting was (I think it means a briefing day, everyone presumed you should know this). I do remember it felt daunting, there were lots of people in suits. Lots and lots of sentences I didn’t understand (We’re going to innovate to take vertical solutions and silos and break them in to a horizontal landscape to help foster a new wave of disruption to help inject in to the information environment testbed) and no one I knew. I looked at the massive documents that accompanied the programme, many of them, many times. And looked at what I needed to do to write a bid. Budgets, signatures, partners, matched funding. I didn’t submit one.

Since then the community has developed, in no small part thanks to Twitter, but also to things like mashlib and many one day events (which either never used to exist in the field that I work, or I was just more ignorant then than I am now). Beer has been a big part of forging links in the HE Library / tech community. Seriously. It really needs its own cost code.

I looked at a number of potential calls over the last few years – often they required a report or development that I had no really knowledge in, I almost came close to putting something in for the JISC rapid innovation call (and helped mark it). When the JISC LMS call came out about a year a go the time and subject were right to submit a bid. I knew the subject matter, I had a natural interest and passion, and I knew the people who would be involved in these sorts of things.

These are tips for people who are thinking of putting in a bid, especially those who are stupidly disorganised like me:

  • Time between a call being released and the submission deadline is short, normally about a month, which in HE terms is not long. Use the JISC funding timeline to get a heads up of future funding opportunities so that you can prepare for working on a bid (including blocking off time during a month, and arranging initial meetings with others) before it comes out and not taken by surprise. The JISC 15/10 call had a blog post a few weeks before the call came out giving a feel for the call and confirming the date it should be released. It helped me to start thinking about ideas and block out time to read it (even if some of that time was in the evening) on the day it was released.
  • Every organisation is different (that applies to everything I say) but for us, setting up a meeting a couple of days after the call was out was very useful. It included those who it could affect and relevant senior staff. The call had lots of areas which matched our goals (and some, not always the same, that matched my personal interests), it was good to prepare a briefing and then bounce those ideas around to see what had potential and see what other ideas came up. It helps in many ways, to quickly focus and refine potential ideas (and drop those that people show no interest in), keep everyone in the loop and see whose willing to work on it. It stops it being one person or departments little side project.
  • The briefing day was very useful, especially for talking to people, finding potential partners and getting great advice.
  • Now I have an incredible amount of bad points, but two of them are leaving everything to the last minute and working in a very linear fashion. Often things that feel like they are the last things you need to do are actually things you need to set in motion earlier on. This seems so simple typing it now but I’ll probably (be warned colleagues) do the same next time. These include budget, project name and supporting letters.
  • The budget is hard. See if your org offers support in doing this. The problem is certain magic numbers (the wonders of trac and fec) can only be calculated once you know all your other costs. However I tend to find that near the end of the bid writing process you suddenly think of some work a particular group/person/org will need to do so you need to factor in those hours and costs, or you invite someone from the other end of the country to be on a panel and need to cater for their travel and hotel costs. In best ‘do as I say don’t do as I do’ tradition I would try and bash this out well in advance so it can be sent to those who can then check it over and fill in the magic numbers.
  • Asking a friend at another Uni if they don’t mind asking their (P)VC to drop everything so that he/she can write a nice supporting letter for your project is hard. So try and avoid it by getting it done sooner. Again often easier said than done as projects tend to evolve during the bid writing process which can make letters reflect out of date ideas or stress the wrong areas.
  • Letters and other stuff need a project name. I’m guilty of really not thinking a name is that important. The acronym will be meaningless to all. On my first bid I just used a working name (all of 5 seconds thought) and right at the end asked everyone if they are happy to go with it. Mistake. Changing project name at the last minute is a pain.
  • A key point. You need a good idea. And a good idea is one that is a good fit to the call. You may have a perfect methodology but if the idea doesn’t fit with the call then you could be in trouble. I’m guessing ‘It’s not really what you’re after but it’s such a good idea you must want to fund it’ is not a good sign.
  • Speak to people, I mentioned the briefing day above, but also speak to the programme manager, they’re nice people! Talk about it on twitter.
  • You don’t need to be an expert. I was put off for years from writing a bid about things I was interested in but didn’t think I knew enough about. You can ask people to work with you! People who know how to do stuff. I’ve just submitted a bid about Linked Data. Now I’ve followed the rise of Linked Data for years and tried to learn about it, but taking an XML file and ‘converting’ (is that the right term?) in to Linked Data, I had no idea how to even start. But I spoke to some people, who recommended someone, and they do know what to do
  • Approaching others out the blue is difficult, especially if you don’t feel ‘part of it’. All I can say is ask. And if you don’t know who to approach ask people (either at the JISC or via twitter) for advice.
  • If you have a clear(ish) idea of what you are going to do, broken down in to mini packages of work, andwho is going to do each one of them, then writing the actually bid is easy. Treat it like a job application. We all know that when writing a job app use the Person spec as a structure, a paragraph for each entry of the person spec, perhaps even with headings to help those marking your application. A bid is just the same, the clearly laid out structure of a bid is worth sticking to, it’s the same thing the markers will have to use to score each section. If the JISC Call document ‘proposal outline’ refers to a section which talks about Project Management, leadership, copyright, evaluation and sustainability. Then write about those things together as clearly as possible. Long winded paragraphs which ramble on about everything and make subtle implied passing references are a bain to the marker and no help to you.
  • But, I have been involved in marking and assessing bids, what impressed me was the impartial way bids were judged, and the real desire of wanting to fund Good Ideas, even if the actually bid document needs a little clarity in some parts. Especially from first bidders. To stress, there was a real desire to see first time bidders (with a good idea) be successful.
  • So the actually bid write up can in a way be left later than other tasks mentioned above, as it mainly involves just you, (and probably a couple of people who work closely with you to check it).
  • In an ideal world this would all be done weeks before it needed submission. In real life other factors (and work) can mean it can be a last minute dash. That’s fine. But make sure a few days before it has to be submitted you put in to an email to yourself (and others involved in writing it up): The email address to send it to, the submission date time, cut and paste things such as the exact format it needs to be submitted in (how many fiels, how big), number of pages. Add a link below each of these facts to the actually source of information (jiscpress is excellent for this), so when you’re panicing and presume everything you know is wrong you can follow a link and see for yourself that it really is eight pages max for the proposal, direct from the horses mouth.

The whole process of submitting a bid, and running a project, is good experience. It often involves working with people you would not normally, and doing differently to your normal job. Now if I get a chance in the next few days I will follow Joss’ example and blog about our proposal.