Progress in the procurement stakes

One of the biggest breakthroughs for design over the past 12 months has to be the Government’s shift in attitude towards Civil Service procurement policies. Sorting out this thorny issue has been the rallying cry of many a Chartered Society of Designers president, most notably of London Transport design head Jeremy Rewse-Davies and his successor, The Jenkins Group chairman Nick Jenkins. But despite a lot of lobbying, no one in design has managed to make a real impact.

The fact remains that if they are spending a collective 40bn a year on design, efficient design management is key for Government departments to get the best for their money. Designers, meanwhile, are set to benefit, whether they are working within the Civil Service or as external consultants. Communication is likely to be clearer if the Government adopts a more integrated strategy for design buying.

Improving design procurement isn’t a new campaign for the Design Council. It has been chipping away for the past couple of years, spawning initiatives such as a conference at the QE2 centre in London with the Social Market Foundation during John Major’s term at 10 Downing Street.

According to Martin Brown, the council’s newly appointed director with particular responsibility for Government, “we’ve been gradually working it up for the past two and a half years. Behind the scenes, we’ve been developing research, bringing in people from the Civil Service and figures such as Nick Jenkins and Ian Rowland-Hill [chief executive of the Design Business Association] from the design world.”

But the first hint that the message was really getting across came with the invitation from Chris Smith’s newly renamed ministry, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to the council to help it commission a new identity last July. That job in place, with CDT Design handling the identity, the DCMS agreed to let the council help it institute a design management system throughout the department.

Building on that opportunity, the Design Council is organising a cross-departmental seminar on procurement on 1 July with design minister John Battle and arts minister Mark Fisher. It will use that seminar to promote the DCMS experience as an example of what can be achieved. Permanent Secretaries from all Government departments are being invited, and according to a Design Council spokesman, they will be urged quite strongly to at least be represented at the event.

According to Brown, the idea is that top civil servants swap notes with their peers to glean elements that would work in their own departments. This, he suggests, is more likely to get the message across than tub-thumping by the design community, especially as it still does not talk to the Government with a single voice.

But his sentiments have not stopped the Design Council from trumpeting the merits of harnessing design and innovation to the politicians, whether within the Civil Service or in industry. Reports such as Designed to compete, (DW 24 April), make much of the benefits of an integrated approach and sound design management practice.

Indeed, this latest document spells it out very clearly. Having made the point that “good design is profitable”, it urges the Government to lead the way.

“The Government should set an example to both the private sector and the rest of the public sector by improving its own use of design – with the Department of Trade and Industry striving to become a centre of excellence. This will also generate direct benefits for Government departments themselves in terms of cost-efficiency, improved staff morale and motivation and more effective procurement,” it states.

The report also calls for “a fundamental review” of how civil servants are trained, to see how best to encourage an understanding and better use of design and innovation. The Design Council is already making inroads here, having subcontracted Alexis Brooks, a lecturer at the Civil Service College in Sunningdale with influence over procurement courses and examinations run by the Treasury, to carry out research into training and procurement. Brooks has spent about one day a week with the council since last July, and is due to give initial findings this summer. The project, due to be completed in March 1999, is expected to yield options for new training on design purchasing and a draft syllabus.

With a dialogue now established between the Government and the Design Council and others, procurement practice looks set to change for the better. We await the outcome of the DCMS example to see what challenge the DTI faces if it is to live up to Design Council expectations.

Chris Smith became Heritage Secretary last May, but was soon to be Culture Secretary, heading the new Department of Culture, Media and Sport. He once said the DCMS’s job was to promote ‘good design as good investment’.

Seen at more design dos than any other Government minister, he is as likely to be spotted at the Design Museum with Terence Conran at the launch of the museum’s James Dyson-funded education unit, as at the opening of the London Film Festival. He is in regular contact with design minister John Battle, whose remit at the Department of Trade and Industry includes science and energy.

Last year Smith commissioned CDT Design, with Design Council help, to create the DCMS identity. That resulted in the DCMS becoming the test-bed for a strategy to improve design buying in the Civil Service, masterminded by the Design Council.

Smith also chairs the Millennium Commission and the Creative Industries Taskforce.

He was elected MP for London’s Islington South and Finsbury in 1983 and served in the shadow cabinet from 1992-7.

Mark Fisher

Now arts minister at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Mark Fisher was the Labour MP most prominent in design circles when the party was in opposition. He was Labour’s arts spokesman from 1987-92 and shadow spokesman on the Citizen’s Charter from 1992-3.

In opposition he pledged that a Labour Government would make design a priority and in 1994 became co-chairman of the All Party Group on Design with Tory MP John Butcher, a former design minister. Since taking on his current role, Fisher has said that the Labour Government will be the first to have a cultural strategy rather than a policy for funding the arts.

A regular speaker on design in opposition and in Government, Fisher’s programme has included speeches on Green issues at the Design Museum in the late Eighties, at the By Design: Effective Purchasing in the Public Sector seminar in 1996 and at the Royal College of Art Rector’s Dinner last summer.

He is now set to be co-chairman with design minister John Battle of a seminar on design buying in the Civil Service, organised by the Design Council for July.

He’s been MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central since 1983.

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