Buying into a scheme for design purchase

A conference tackling government procurement of design came up with some promising results. Clare Dowdy reports

The spirits of design suppliers and purchasers operating in the public sector were stirred this week at a conference tackling an issue close to all their hearts – the Government’s procurement of design. The great and the good from both sides of the fence were joined by design managers from private industry to discuss Better Government By Design: Effective Purchasing in the Public Sector.

The conference, run jointly by the Social Market Foundation and the Design Council, follows the SMF’s research into the inconsistent and often shoddy approach to design shown by government departments. The left-wing think- tank found that “design suffers from an image problem” among many purchasers who, despite this, are responsible for investing 40bn a year in its procurement.

Suppliers and purchasers alike acknowledge the money wasted in the process of giving out badly structured bid documents and briefs, and making ill-formed decisions. But despite designers’ often frustrating experiences of working for government, and the equal frustration for purchasers working in design-naive departments, the conference mood was upbeat, with a central aim of achieving better understanding between the two sectors.

Argument focused on the fact that to really improve the system, changes must be made at policy level. Shadow heritage minister Mark Fisher promised a “holistic approach” to design buying from a future Labour government, and blamed governments of both parties for conspicuously failing to recognise design’s potential. He is in the process of updating the Labour Design Policy of 1992 and counts Sir Richard Rogers and Wally Olins among his “advisors”.

Fisher’s promise of a “coherent” approach to design throughout departments has been welcomed. “There is a real commitment to the concepts of design within Labour policy,” says Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers, adding: “I believe they will follow through with that commitment.” However, despite Summers’ convictions, doubts were aired privately that such far-reaching plans would ever make it into policy, even if Labour leader Tony Blair is as design-conscious as Fisher claims.

Fisher admits that an approach using simple guidelines might not work in practice and depends on the Treasury taking a longer view. Design, often a long-term investment, has been the victim of a short-term attitude to spending.

The introduction of a “design hero” to help put Fisher’s concepts into practice was mooted by delegates. This representative, coming from the design industry, would oversee and advise government. Summers acknowledged the importance of “design champions” within government, but warned that “if you have one individual, design will become separate rather than integrated”.

A call from the design industry for the profession to be taken more seriously was echoed by Government employees, who admitted that design-buying decisions were often made by unqualified staff. The educative process should include design procurement knowledge, it was argued, and more senior staff should be trained to take on design buying so it was not left to information officers, who often had no authority to make decisions.

To alleviate this problem, the Design Council will lobby the Treasury’s Central Unit of Procurement to introduce a design element to the Certificate of Competence, the qualification needed by Government procurement staff.

The conference was not intended to solve design’s grievances overnight, and designers accepted that the proposals generated will take time to filter into the policy of any government. Of more importance was sending purchasers away inspired to tackle some of the issues in their day-to-day dealing with designers. And most designers there felt this had been achieved.

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