Digital procurement opportunities and how to improve them: notes from the 3rd DOS CoP

Last week, I was invited to take part in the third Digital Outcomes & Specialists Community of Practice, an event organised by CCS to bring together digital and procurement.

Over the past year, CCS has delivered 90 customer workshops to better understand the challenges presented to both buyers and suppliers in using the DOS framework, and to help buyers make better use of it.  At the heart of this work is an excellent idea: that CCS is here to help, and that we should actively celebrate the procurement profession for the vital contribution it makes to public service. And they’re making a difference: we’ve seen improvements in the way DOS is used since our survey, and we’re sure that the practical support and workshops led by the inimitable Emilia Cedano are part of the reason why.

I’ve spoken a couple of times about Digital Outcomes and Specialists to present dxw’s findings from  The Great British Digital Outcomes Armchair Audit, so we thought it would be a good time to write a bit more about this work. It’s a bit long. You might want to grab a cuppa!

Content quality in opportunities

I believe that having clearly written opportunities at the start of the procurement process is vitally important if we want to ensure that the work itself has positive outcomes. The whole process of delivery is dependent on the procurement part working well.  If the opportunities are unclear, suppliers’ bids will also be unclear. If the bids are unclear, buyers will struggle to score them effectively. And if bids aren’t scored effectively, the supplier most suited to the work is less likely to win it, and the outcome will be poorer as a result.

So, back in the summer of 2017, I wrote a slightly ranty post criticising the language used in many of the opportunities presented on DOS.  In the end, I didn’t publish it, because I was worried that it was all anecdote and no data. So we decided to do a bit of research to see if other people had the same problems with the framework.

Thus the ‘Great British Digital Outcomes Armchair Audit’ was created. We took three weeks’ worth of opportunities (31 in total) and over the course of two months, invited people to vote on the whether the language used by the buyers was clear.

Our findings

Over two months, we got almost 3,000 votes (a much higher number than we expected) and found that the general consensus was much as we thought: suppliers do find opportunities hard to understand.

The public sector has its own language and context and it’s important for suppliers to learn that language in order to succeed. But buyers can give suppliers a helping hand: by writing in plain English and avoiding internal acronyms and jargon, they’ll ensure that more suppliers understand what they want. They’ll get more and better bids that they’ll be able to score more easily.

Summaries of work

For suppliers, the opportunity summary is one of the most important fields in an opportunity. It sets the scene and context for all the answers that follow. According to our respondents, 68% of opportunities in our study did not have a clear summary. This compounds the problems with other answers: not only are they unclear, but they’re talking about an opportunity or problem that itself is also not clear.

The problem to be solved

Part of our role as a supplier is to help our clients find and iterate on good solutions to their problems. We want to work on projects that are based on user needs, test prototypes, iterate on products and learn with the client as we go.

But many of the opportunities in our study didn’t give us the chance to do this. According to our respondents, 74% of the opportunities did not clearly explain the problem to be solved. Often, this is because they actually explain a solution.

There was one notable example where this field contained a list of IT services that the buyer needed, like printers and meeting room projectors. This is an odd opportunity to put on DOS, but setting that aside: this doesn’t explain anything about the problem and robs us of the opportunity to suggest creative and innovative ways we could help, or pick relevant parts of our experience to highlight. With this example, we’d like to know what the problems are with their current IT? What do they want to achieve that they can’t currently do? What user needs are they unable to meet?

The buying team putting a solution in the problem field is a big red flag for dxw when considering what to bid for: it makes us worried that they’ve already decided what they want, and won’t be interested in learning during delivery.

Who are the users and what do they need to do?

The delivery process outlined by the digital service standard starts with an understanding of user needs. The DOS framework contract obligates us to follow this approach. When a DOS opportunity doesn’t give us this information, it’s hard for us to know how to respond.

In one opportunity in the study, the buyer wrote:

“This has already been considered and structural design is well underway, although developers welcome to input throughout the build”

This feels like a buyer who wants a supplier to come in and deliver their spec without working with them to deliver a service that’s based on user needs. We can’t and don’t work that way, so when we see opportunities like this, we generally don’t respond.

Budget for the work

32% of opportunities in our study did not disclose a clear budget.

Understanding the budget for the work is vital. Without it, we don’t know if we’re writing a bid for £10,000 worth of work or £10m. The scale of effort that the buyer expects is often not obvious and we can’t tell our team to put together a compelling bid when it’s such a gamble.

It’s also another red flag for us when considering if we’re confident we’ll be able to work with the client team. One opportunity in the study had the following in the budget field:

“Please submit a fixed price proposal”

We almost never bid for opportunities with this sort of answer. We need to understand the budget, and we need to be confident that the client’s staff will work with us as a single team. Being in a team that functions well requires close and regular communication, collaboration and trust.

These things take time to grow and take work. That’s ok. But a buyer who won’t disclose their budget is disclosing something else that they may not intend or expect: that they don’t trust suppliers to be honest and act in good faith. That they’re worried that with a disclosed budget, suppliers will just quote that budget for the smallest amount of work they can get away with.

They’re starting out the process assuming that they can’t trust us, which doesn’t bode well for the work.

Essential Requirements

77% of the opportunities in the study required six or more essential skills, and just under half shortlisted five or more suppliers for a proposal.

When a buyer includes more than 6 or 7 essential criteria it’s almost impossible to stop them overlapping. You start to find that half of what you said for one criterion is also applicable to another. In this situation, do you repeat what you said? Or do you trust them to remember you said it and consider it when scoring another response? Is that even something they’re allowed to do? If not, is it something that happens in practice anyway?

Long lists of muddled criteria will lead to muddled answers from suppliers and take more time for us to write.

There’s a related problem with shortlisting lots of suppliers. If we’re up against lots of suppliers, and there’s limited time to assess them, we’re aware that our bid will get less attention. This is human nature: by the time someone is readying the sixth or seventh proposal, they’re probably not quite going to be paying as much attention as they did on the first, and we wouldn’t expect them to. Opportunities with lots of essential criteria tend also to ask for lots of things at the proposal stage, so the two problems can compound each other.

Equally importantly, if we’re unsuccessful, how much time will the buyer really have to give good and useful feedback on why?

What would help?

So, bearing all these results in mind, what would help suppliers when writing opportunities? We can’t speak for everyone, but there are lots of things that could help dxw when we’re bidding.

Answer questions promptly and directly

Questions are a vitally important part of the process. The opportunity itself is always short. We ask questions to get more detail, to gauge the client’s tone and learn their language, to understand their thinking and see how they work.

For this to be effective, we need good answers in good time. It’s no use bundling up all the questions and answering them together at the end of the clarification process. It’s no use having a lawyer write all the answers, stripping them of their detail and character. Ideally, we’d like answers written by the delivery team, coming back in time for us to ask follow-ups.

A really good way to achieve this, and to get to grips with the messy detail of digital delivery in general, is to spend some time sitting with the buying team in your organisation. Do the same work you’d normally do, just in a different place. Join the odd standup. Find out what makes your digital delivery team tick, and what makes them worry. When you get a question, chat about it with the team, and write an answer together.

Maintain relationships with your suppliers

Build relationships with your suppliers! There’s a lot of buyers can do within the boundaries of the regulations. You can run pre-tender market engagements, run workshops to gather and test ideas, write  blog posts and work in the open. You can keep in touch with your current suppliers, find out how delivery is going and hear their stories.

Be bold: the regulations are strict, but they also suffer from onerous interpretation. If you’re confident something is ok but worried about the appearance of impropriety, do it anyway. Publish a blog post explaining your thinking and tell everyone what you’re up to. Working in the open takes away much more risk than it creates. The One Team Gov principles are a great place to begin thinking about how to work this way, and there’s a large community of like-minded people there whose experience you can draw on.

The most important principle is to be open because it makes things better: nothing should be secret unless it really needs to be. Tell suppliers what you plan to do, what your contract pipeline looks like and what you’re likely to need. Help us plan. Tell us about the work you’re doing, what’s working and what’s not.

Record and track your requirements

When you find essential requirements that really help you to pick out suppliers that do good work, hang on to them and use them more. Equally, when you find a requirement that all suppliers score highly on all the time, cut it out: it’s not helping you make good decisions, and every extra requirement costs time.

Suppliers should do this too, by keeping track of what answers generate good scores for them.

Keep your language as simple as possible

We are public sector specialists – we only work with public sector bodies – and even we struggle sometimes with the acronyms and jargon in tender documents. Most bidders are not specialists and will struggle more.

Remember you aren’t writing for an internal audience, and many suppliers will not be willing to reveal their ignorance by asking a question about an acronym that they fear they ought to know but don’t. Suppliers do have a responsibility to learn the market and the sector and speak the language of their clients, but you’ll get better bids if you make it a bit easier for them.

When we see a bid full of internal acronyms, jargon and non-specific explanations, we suspect that the buyer just wants to reappoint their incumbent: as they’re probably going to be the only ones who understand it, and so the only ones who’ll be able to write a high-scoring response.

Focus on the problem and the outcome

Suppliers have a variety of approaches, perspectives and outcomes. This is a strength – it allows us space to be creative, and gives you more options.

But this approach doesn’t work when a bid prescribes a particular technical solution or requires roles with particular titles that might not fit into how all suppliers manage their teams. There’ll be a variation in how suppliers organise their teams and how they approach your requirements: give them the space to explain how they’ll do it.

Instead of setting detailed requirements or prescribing certain technologies or titles, describe the problem and the desired outcome, and give suppliers the space to explain to you how they’ll be met.

Remember government can’t outsource risk. You are buying the supplier team’s time, experience and expertise, so focus on assessing those things well. Nailing down specific deliverables, technologies or approaches might make it feel like you’re reducing risk, but you’re doing the opposite: your’re fossilising your current perspective in a contract and making it harder to learn and iterate during delivery.

Your opportunity is a story and a pitch

Treat the opportunity as a story. Start by setting the context, outlining the purpose of the work, the problem, the user needs and how you think you’ll meet them, and explain what you’ve done so far. Try to make your answers flow well. Each answer follows on logically from the last one, picking up from the last statement you made so it reads as a single, coherent story.

If you make the opportunity engaging, appealing and exciting (a lot of this work IS exciting!) you’ll get more and better bids, because suppliers will be emotionally engaged and more motivated to succeed. dxw doesn’t do public sector work to make a quick buck: there are many better ways to do that, and I know many other suppliers who feel the same. We’re here because we care about public service, about outcomes for citizens and about helping public sector bodies to work efficiently and effectively. This work is fascinating, motivating and exciting.

Is your opportunity an extra one for an account manager to add to the pipeline so they hit their quarterly KPIs for a number of bids submitted? Or is it one that gets sent up the chain and given time and attention by senior leadership? What is the strategic opportunity for the supplier?

We look for opportunities not just based on their commercial value, but on their capacity to help us further our mission and support our strategy. When you write an opportunity, you’re pitching to suppliers too! We don’t bid on opportunities unless they are good prospects for dxw’s development and success, and align with our own mission, values and strategy.

Give generous feedback

And lastly but most importantly: give generous feedback.

We want to improve what we’re doing and make our answers more useful to buyers and easier for them to score. We understand that a good bid from us makes your job easier and improves our prospects. But we can’t get better without feedback!

This might feel like a chore, but buyers who do it well will get better bids over the long term: we pick organisations to bid for in part based on the quality of their feedback because getting good feedback makes us more likely to win eventually.