Procuring a better deal for all

High-level meetings between policy-makers and senior design figures could see an overhaul of Government procurement practices, says Tom Banks

Major changes to Government procurement procedures could result from a series of recent Parliamentary meetings reviewing the tendering process.

In the final of three assemblies held at the House of Lords on 20 July, a panel – which included Labour peer Baroness Whitaker, chief executive of the Design Business Association Deborah Dawton, Design Council deputy chief executive David Godber and Appetite director Laura Haynes – came up with the radical suggestion that Government departments might approach design consultancies directly, mirroring private-sector procurement practice.

It also suggested that more Government departments could have in-house design managers, and that the education of design buyers and procurers should be improved.

The first meeting saw the design community raise its concerns about the current system, while the second meeting examined good practice in the public sector.
A 5000-word summary of the findings will be presented to Parliament in October, in the hope of lobbying for procurement change. Recommendations will be made to both the Government and the design community.

Jocelyn Bailey, group manager of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation, hosted the summit. She describes inefficiency in the current system, with the Government swamped with hundreds of proposals for each tender.

‘Of these, only 50 per cent will pass the criteria,’ Bailey says. One proposal, she adds, is for Government departments to ‘go directly’ to design groups and ‘do their research beforehand so they can address the right people’.

Bailey concedes that there would need to be ‘legal tweaking’, should such ideas be implemented. If rosters and the current tendering processes were dismantled, issues of fairness and EU law surrounding procurement thresholds would have to be addressed.

Dawton, meanwhile, maintains that the ideas mooted in the meetings are merely suggestions at this stage, but she believes that scrapping the current system is a distinct possibility.

Our recommendation may be to advocate a new system,’ says Dawton. ‘It’s a challenge for any Government department that receives 400 expressions of interest. The alternative is commissioning the client properly by doing a brief and research, which is what happens in the private sector, where companies would research the groups best suited to fulfill a brief.’

Dawton is acutely aware of the legal uncertainties that could arise from bringing private-sector practice to the public arena. ‘Members of the Government cannot be seen to be procuring their own brother-in-law,’ she says, adding, ‘We have to bear in mind that taxpayers’ money is implicated in any recommendation that is made. There has to be a balance between expenditure of taxpayers’ money and procuring the best design.’

In addition, the DBA is planning to put together its own ‘ideal procurement document’ aimed at the Government, although ‘nothing is set in stone yet’, says Dawton.
The amount of bureaucracy in the current tender process is a concern for some groups, and Dawton recognises this. ‘There is a possibility that, faced with so much form-filling, private sector-style procurement is the only approach and solution.’

Start Creative has experience of Government procurement practice, having worked for the Department of Health on an overhaul of the brand strategy for its Tobacco Control Programme and the Foreign Office on a G20 leaders logo for the London Summit.

Start chief executive Mike Curtis says one major bugbear is that consultancies have to submit to the same time-consuming registration process each time they tender for a Government project.

Curtis says, ‘Having to provide the same information every time is quite laborious. Maybe the DBA can provide a resource that enables a first round of pitching to be overseen by trade – rather than Government – bodies.’

He continues, ‘The tender process isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it does providea relatively level playing field, and the Government coming to you could raise issues of favouritism.’

For Fred Burt, managing director of Siegel & Gale, it doesn’t always make economic sense to pitch for public work. ‘Some tenders are high risk for low reward, because so many groups go for the same project. It’s a huge investment of time,’ he says. He suggests that the early stages should be simpler and more fluid, with the more complex application systems reserved for shortlisted groups.

Consistency of practice is another concern, even under the current system. Some Government departments, including the Home Office, do not always use the Central Office of Information rosters set up to procure marketing and design services. While Government departments must work within EU public procurement directives, it is not mandatory for them to buy design through COI rosters.

In a statement, the Home Office admits that ‘the Home Office Marketing Unit procures the large majority of communication services through the COI, with the occasional exception’.

Current Public Procurement Practice:

  • All services procured by Government departments through the Central Office of Information are tendered in compliance with EU procurement rules
  • Design consultancies compete for inclusion on framework agreements, which pre-qualifies their services should Government departments require them
  • Quality evaluation procedures when establishing a framework agreement assure the Government that its defined requirements are met and that it offers the best suppliers and delivers competitive prices

* According to the Central Office of Information

Latest articles