Use the public sector safety net

Public sector work is useful when the design business slows down, and you no longer have to be on the COI roster to qualify, says Trish Lorenz

Retailers are having a turgid time of it, the housing market has slowed to a crawl, but there is one sector that seems generally immune to the economic doldrums – the public sector.

Over the past month we’ve seen a swathe of activity here. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is reviewing its graphic design services roster, the first shake-up in five years (DW 23 June); the British Council this month completed a review of its design roster, appointing 25 groups (DW 7 July), and Government body UK Trade & Investment appointed 14 consultancies to its design roster last month (DW 9 June).

And one trend that seems to be emerging from all this activity is a preference to bypass the Central Office of Information.

The COI was originally created to handle the rosters for all Government communications, be that design, advertising or marketing. Its centrally-held lists were accessed by departments and organisations across Government; a place on them equalled an invaluable business opportunity.

But a centralised system brings with it its own issues and now that it is no longer mandatory for Government bodies to use COI rosters, many departments and public sector organisations choose to run their own bid process.

Procurement managers now treat the COI ‘just like any other commercial contractor’, says DCMS procurement manager Stephen MacVicar. ‘Departments can tap in where needed, but they can also look at options elsewhere,’ he explains. ‘And,’ he adds, ‘there are very few Government departments that don’t have their own rosters. It’s my impression that the COI’s balance of pricing and [roster groups] doesn’t always work.’

DCMS head of promotions and publicity Flavia Piggins says the department chose to manage its own roster because it wanted a greater degree of flexibility and stronger relationships with suppliers.

‘It’s very important for us to work with designers we know and having a good working relationship is key,’ she says.

Rather than a centralised and distant roster, she prefers giving designers ‘the chance to get a feel for the way we work and our design direction’.

‘The only way to achieve that successfully is to work across different projects and to work together regularly,’ maintains Piggins.

UK Trade and Investment also chose to manage its own suppliers. Although the department looked to the COI for assistance during the bid process, a UKTI spokeswoman echoes Piggins’ thinking on the benefits of holding its own list.

‘We find a roster helps us build stronger relationships and deliver consistency, higher quality and better value for money,’ she says.

A spokeswoman for the COI denies there is a trend away from using its rosters. ‘Many departments still choose to access our rosters,’ she insists, and the COI still holds 26 lists of contractors covering every element of design – from branding to print, Web and internal communications.

It recently re-evaluated its own print roster, a process that saw 63 groups selected to work with the COI over the next three years.

But designers on the list admit there is less work heading their way. Leeds group Thompson is one of the 63 chosen suppliers and director Ian Thompson acknowledges ‘the COI roster had a lot more departmental work in the past than it does now’.

‘It’s known in the business that other departments today hold a lot more [work] on their own rosters,’ he adds.

Nevertheless, Thompson believes a place on the roster is still ‘definitely worthwhile’ and he says applying for roster status across the sector is something the group intends to pursue diligently in the future.

‘You might acquire work without being on a roster,’ he says, pointing to the group’s work for London’s 2012 bid, which came despite the fact they were not listed as chosen suppliers. But he says, ‘the reality is that if you’re not on the list, most of the time you won’t be considered’.

Applying for public sector roster status is often perceived to be a turgid process and there is some truth in that. If departments spend more than £100 000, EU guidelines stipulate a cross-European tender process, leading to lengthy response times.

The British Council made its selection from what is estimated to have been more than 300 first-round applications and the UKTI process, a Europe-wide competitive tender which began in autumn 2004, took the best part of a year to complete.

The DCMS has selected 20 consultancies to pitch for around ten places, from a long list of 170. It expects the entire process – a final decision is likely in October – to take at least six months, says MacVicar.

As departments across the public sector seek greater creative control, it might be that designers will find themselves pitching for places on more rosters than ever before.

But for those designers that are successful, a Government client can prove lucrative, particularly in times when the private sector tightens its belt as the economy slows.

The procurement process

• A Europe-wide invitation to tender is the first step and usually involves completing a detailed application form.

• A shortlist of companies is invited to quote on case studies and provide samples of work. Cost is a consideration, but it is no longer the driving force behind roster selection decisions. The new mantra is: ‘value for money, not necessarily the cheapest solution’.

• A final roster is drawn up, varying considerably in length from department to department.

• Companies on the roster are invited to pitch for projects.

What public sector design managers look for in roster groups:

• Creativity is universally cited as a key factor – both in the ability to deliver imaginative work and think innovatively.

• Previous experience in the public sector is useful, but it is not compulsory, nor is it the most important consideration. Most managers like to see a mix of public and private sector experience.

• The range of services a group can provide is a key consideration.

• Quality control arrangements will be evaluated and having a British or International quality standard is deemed important.

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