Cut out the red tape

Sarah Balmond says designer feedback is essential to change the Government’s procurement process

Michael Thomson

The word procurement is likely to send a shiver up most people’s backs, particularly in the design industry, where it will conjure up memories of arduous form-filling and drawn- out pitching processes.

The mechanics of the Official Journal of the European Union, the gateway through which public sector work is regularly tendered, raise particular concern, not least because of the body’s anonymous positioning: a faceless third party, sitting awkwardly within a creative industry.

The tenders, which can range from individual projects to invitations to join a roster, cause hundreds of consultancies to scramble for business, yet often it is the small- to medium-sized consultancies that struggle to meet the demands of the complex process, according to sources close to the tendering. A doorstopping 21-page pre-qualification questionnaire can be a major stumbling block for example, often taking up to ‘four days’ to complete.

Throw in the sentiment that the client already has a favourite, or that the tender is just a formality, and that eventual notification will come in the form of a brief rejection letter or e-mail, and the process appears to be seriously flawed, insensitive to design needs, and in need of urgent revision.

Last week, about a hundred designers aired some of these views in an on-line ‘chat room’. This reaction came after a flurry of e-mails sent between disgruntled consultancies, bemoaning a tender currently being undertaken by the Energy Saving Trust (DW 11 August).

The organisation, looking to appoint a retained graphic design consultancy, supplemented the OJEU tendering process after receiving more than 200 responses. It requested that consultancies send in design collateral to best reflect their work prior to filling out OJEU’s pre-qualification questionnaire. Groups that were not put on an 11-strong shortlist were notified of their rejection with a brief mass e-mail.

This example is symptomatic of an overall procurement culture, which can wield ‘a nightmare process’, according to Michael Thomson, president elect of the Bureau of European Design Associations.

He believes the OJEU tendering process is complex and can generate potential ‘barriers’ for SMEs with ‘onerous requirements.’

‘This culture has its own set of rules,’ he explains. ‘It hasn’t got a great understanding of the design industry. The criteria for submission are not sensitive to how design consultancies work, there needs to be more of a creative dialogue.’

Geoff McCormick, business development consultant at product design consultancy Alloy, adds, ‘The OJEC was created with a beneficial goal in mind and is a valuable resource, but it doesn’t offer an efficient service for the design and creative industries.

‘Some tenders are posted simply to fulfil a legal obligation – new submissions stand little chance of winning the work and there is no information available to assess such situations,’ he adds.

However, despite what seems to be commonplace and widespread grievance throughout the industry, the OJEU has received no specific feedback from designers, according to a spokesman.

Currently, the OJEU is working on a revised set of on-line application forms to make the overall process more user-friendly. These will launch in September after an initial ‘transitional period’.

‘We are constantly developing our forms and go to all countries to assess their needs; it is an ongoing process,’ says the spokesman.

A meaningful and consistent dialogue between designers and those running procurement processes must be forged if the overall system of tendering is to be improved. Otherwise, there is the risk that ‘chat room’ remonstrations, such as those that have recently emerged, become lost words in cyber space.


• According to EU legislation, all contracts from the public sector valued above a certain threshold must be published in the Official Journal of the European Union (formerly known as the OJEC).

• This covers: local authorities, NHS trusts, central Government departments, port authorities.

• Around 2500 new notices are advertised every week, including initiations to tender from more than 80 countries worldwide.

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