Wednesday, 01 October 2014
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Government procurement is myopic, inefficient and at times unethical

Legend has it that you can boil a frog to death by placing it in cold water, and then gradually heating it. The frog doesn’t know when to jump out of the pan, and consequently dies.

Despicable and futile, I think you’d agree? And yet this appears to be the UK Government’s creative services procurement policy. Guess who the frog is?

Ian Allison

Not only that, but in this instance the chef doesn’t know how to cook, the restaurant has recently sacked most of its staff who did, and so the chef has to ask the frog how to turn the oven on.

In the past two months, Bell has been offered a number of ‘opportunities to tender’ from Government – if doing a week’s free work for an anonymous client and then casting it into the void, priced at cost, can be described as an opportunity. I will not name the guilty – yet; but here are a few choice examples.

The Department who have asked us to create two fully-formed strategies, with creative – for e-DM and social media respectively, and told us we will be competing against ten (yes TEN agencies). The cherry on this particular cake is that they’re open about the fact that they’ll be using the lowest bidder. The euphemism-du-jour is ‘most economically advantageous’ – which at least has the advantage that it doesn’t send me into blind, unreasoning, 24-hour, non-specific rage like the words ‘low-cost/no-cost solution’ used to.

Aside from the fact that there aren’t ten different kinds of integrated agency – and that they won’t get a spectrum of ten wildly differing quotes, or ten wildly differing approaches – it’s simply unethical to ask for so much free work – especially in these economic circumstances. The Government procurers’ rote justification that they’re ‘protecting the public purse’ is both weak economic thinking, and unbearably myopic. But I digress.

There’s the ‘arms-length’ Government body for whom we recently prepared a detailed outline for a bespoke software solution, who insisted on a very strict and tight deadline, and have since not only failed to stick to their own procurement timetable, but can’t even be arsed to email us and let us know why (let alone, talk to us).

There’s the Department who asked for (you guessed it) a fully-formed strategic approach, and then thanked us and informed us they would be doing the work in-house. I kid you not.

I could go on. There have been (rare) pockets of excellence in Government procurement, but often such people are regarded by the establishment as dangerous mavericks – rather than as people who actually get things done, and have the expertise to be trusted in their decision-making.

There seem to be three problems at the heart of this issue: most Government procurers don’t know how to use a roster correctly, they are confused about the true meaning of ‘value for money’, and all too often they simply don’t have expertise in the services they are procuring (witness the recent tender asking applicants not to use ‘industry jargon’. Huh?).

And then there’s a fourth horseman: relationships. Most Government procurement practice is based on the premise that consultancies are determined to rip their clients off. We are subjected to eye-watering levels of scrutiny that the Departments themselves wouldn’t stand up to. OK, fair enough when applying for a roster – but with every job? Really? Think this through guys – if we rip you off, will you work with us again? Is it in our long-term interests to give you an ineffective, over-priced solution? We’re taxpayers too, you know.

Current Government procurement practices are ultimately anti-competitive, myopic, inefficient and at times unethical (perhaps unwittingly, given the dearth of specific expertise). I wonder how much the public purse would save by employing experts?

At the very least – stop boiling the frog and start building relationships. Call us; we won’t charge you.

Ian Allison is strategy & creative director at Bell Integrated Communications. This article originally ran on Bell’s blog.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Enjoyed the article and especially the realisation that I'm not the only one banging on this particular drum. This problem extends to local government as well...time wasting, free ideas and millions of pounds in insurances for a few thousand in work.

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  • Well said Ian!

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  • It's about time someone highlights this issue. The waste of money is in procurement's mere existence. An ITT over 100 pages is common - must take weeks to draft + get sign-off just on the document. Most projects are divided into "Lots" as well - with no way of indicating cost savings that will come from one agency doing the entire job. And must agree that these days, most ask for creative "solutions" not just creds & indicative exploration/thinking. Budgets are almost at cost for what they are asking - and all this for agencies already on the roster, who have to then pitch for every job against all and sundry...ridiculous waste of taxpayers' money & undermining one of the UK's most valuable and internationally renowned industries.

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  • Has anyone attempted to register with the the Agile Route to Market (ARM) Communications, the government's roster of agencies for lower value contracts..or something like that? I felt like a circus animal having had to jump through numerous hoops (ie register first with numerous other procurement initiatives) before managing to register with ARM. Only to discover a few months later, having received no "opportunities", that in fact I hadn't actually registered due to missing a "step" in the process. At all times being courteous, in case my feedback black-marked my agency, I finally lost the plot when told that their process is clearly laid out and that, by implication, I was stupid if I was unable to follow it. Having been in creative communications for 30+ years I begged to differ! Perhaps the first creative communication "opportunity" the government should put out to tender is their own procurement processes while jumping through the 'Information Standards' and 'Plain English' hoops themselves?

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  • An exceptionally well written piece.

    I am very close to someone in Government and even they express exasperation at the stupidity and rigidity of the procurement people they have to work with on a daily basis.

    In many cases procurement create internal hoops, for departments trying to appoint external contractors, to jump through, then refuse to accept the hoops have been jumped through satisfactorily, causing more work for all.

    How is this good use of tax payers money?

    I think the question that I ask the more I interact with procurement departments in general is who is watching them? Constantly I deal with a procurement mentality that is to appoint the cheapest (and causing untold extra work and cost as a result, which is never attributed to procurements decision) rather than the best for the role. And there is no arguing with them, or they will simply appoint a more 'yes men' friendly team.

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  • Great article. It's a challenge of monumental proportions to fix. Apparently the cabinet office are making some good progress on making procurement much simpler and quicker for small agencies and jobs - but i generally also worry about the 'value for money' calculation being reduced to cheapest offer. Much harder to educate civil servants about what represents value.

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