Courting the public arena

Designers must show that they can thrive in the public sector – and learn to handle the procurement process better, argues Gerry Postlethwaite

Things are changing in public-sector design buying – and not always for the good as far as design groups are concerned. However, consistent message element selection and the tone of voice that delivers it in copy and design are recognised by most serious public-sector thinkers as key to delivering satisfaction to their stakeholders via clear communication of their intent and achievements.

There are so many good things developing for design in the sector that they can often blur, but not eliminate, the bad stuff. The public-sector design buyers we deal with at Dogstar Design are loyal, deliver reasonable budgets, appreciate conceptual thinking, require but also applaud excellent and timely execution, and pay our bills on time.

The baddies, and we know quite a few of them, are uncertain and inexperienced buyers of creative communications and invariably want to see lots of speculative ideas upon which they can pass judgement in the selection process. Too frequently, procurement is singled out as the bad influence, but it is never procurement that asks for speculative pitching of creative ideas.

Procurement is now deemed essential to the buying of all manner of goods and services in the public sector being executed in an ethical fashion. This should ensure competitive bidding and a fair selection process. Carried out well it will deliver good value (not the cheapest), sustainable supplies and satisfy public scrutiny. It is not the enemy in relation to design buying, just one of the essential factors we have to learn to work with.

We have managed to build a significant base of design work for the public sector and developed some great and enduring relationships along the way. During that time, procurement has become a major factor in our dealing with those clients, setting us a learning curve that we now understand.

Also during that time clients that have a roster have nearly, but not yet entirely, ceased to ask selected roster design groups to compete against each other on a speculative basis. But the baddies are still out there in profusion, on both sides of the fence.

We need to understand what value for money means, how it can be measured and how to work with public-sector clients to establish the criteria by which work is to be judged.

In selling to the public sector, it is vital to meet the people you will be dealing with before getting involved with carrying out work. This may sound obvious, but a vast amount of work is still carried out on the basis of a brief delivered by e-mail with no budget and with designs sent back by e-mail with no face-to-face presentation.

This makes rejection easy. More often than not you were making up the required number of pitches to enable the client to reselect the (local) incumbent.

Selling in the sector is about finding and nurturing pockets of genuine potential and devoting time to tailoring your credentials pitch to demonstrate an understanding of the client’s needs – do your homework properly and reward will follow.

If we are prepared to develop sustainable communication programmes and be judged by their success, then we will receive reasonable budgets and even-handed treatment from our clients. Public-sector clients must understand that they are wasting public money by chopping and changing suppliers in the creative services arena because inconsistency in their communications leads to brand message fragmentation and stakeholder confusion. In addition, ‘shopping the field’ wastes time on the client side and eats away at designer margins, adversely affecting the quality of the creative work. This is not good buying.

We have a classic two-way street operating here. We designers must deliver real value, clarity of thought, good concepts and great execution. For us to do so, public-sector clients must select their design partner and involve them in the formulation of the brief, set a clear budget, work together in strategy development and participate in concept refinement. Together the designer and client must evaluate the success of the project and move forward.

Finally, effectiveness and value for money are inseparable and thus I would urge the Design Business Association to include a public-sector category in the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards. However, the Design Council, the Confederation of British Industry and other influencers need to get behind the Associate Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation and maintain the momentum.

Thinking Public:

• Ensure that you are working with the decision-maker

• Only develop proposals if you have a good idea of the total budget available

• Never give away concept thinking or creative work

• Ensure that value for money is at the heart of your proposal, including agreeing evaluation criteria

• Welcome the involvement of procurement people and understand their requirements

• Do your homework and show understanding of the client’s needs, but maintain your individuality

Gerry Postlethwaite is chairman of Dogstar Design

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