Are confusing bid notices leading to ‘bad outcomes’ for government digital projects?

Research from digital specialist dxw finds that suppliers on key digital framework find most opportunity notices lack clarity on customer needs, desired outcomes, and budget

Credit: Flickr/Dennis Hill

The majority of public sector IT projects launched through the Digital Outcomes and Specialists 2 framework are blighted by poorly written opportunity notices, research of suppliers has found.

Government digital specialist dxw conducted research in which suppliers on the framework provided feedback on a total of 31 opportunities published on the Digital Marketplace platform over a period of three weeks in September and October 2017. About 3,000 votes were cast on issues such as whether the needs of the customer were well explained, and whether the budget was the clear, and whether there was adequate detail on the background to the project. 

Some 65% of opportunities were deemed “generally bad” by a majority of respondents, while just 13% were considered “generally good”.

Suppliers’ votes also indicated that:

  • 71% of opportunities failed to properly explain the problem that needed to be solved
  • 74% provided an unclear description of users’ needs
  • 68% lacked a clear summary of the work that needed to be undertaken
  • 65% did not clarify the landscape in which the project existed, and whether it was a one-off, part of a wider strategy, or a scheduled iteration
  • 89% contained a scheduled phase which suppliers felt was inappropriate for the project in question
  • 32% omitted a clear budget for the work
  • 71% failed to provide clear details of the pre-tender market engagement, where such an exercise had taken place

The original Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework launched in March 2016. This was followed by the second iteration in January 2017. The vehicles have served as successors to the unpopular Digital Services framework.

Harry Metcalfe, managing director of dxw, told PublicTechnology that, while the new deals have shown progress, there is still room for improvement. 

“It is much better than what went before. But, as we got to grips with the framework, we noticed that a lot of opportunities that were published were quite hard to respond to, and they were not answering questions around user needs and budget,” he said.

The dxw boss said that he conducted the survey to find out whether research would confirm – or disprove – his gut feeling that the supplier community at large would share his frustrations. Metcalfe praised Crown Commercial Service and the Government Digital Service for helping to publicise the study and for a general willingness to listen to and engage with supplier feedback.

Quality assurance
The key improvement that CCS could implement, according to Metcalfe, would be a more formalised and rigorous quality assurance process. This would allow the agency’s commercial expertise to be brought to bear to help buyers and improve opportunity notices that have, in many cases, been created by digital professionals who might possess little or no experience of writing commercial documents.

“When an opportunity has been put together thoughtfully and carefully, it is usually the product of a team that has both digital and commercial staff,” he said. “That commercial skill set brings an understanding of the market, and what we [as suppliers] can and cannot do.”

A rating system that gave suppliers that allowed suppliers to comment on the clarity – or otherwise – of an opportunity notice would also help, Metcalfe added. But ensuring that fewer poorly written bids are published to begin with should be the chief goal and this would, ultimately, have the biggest impact on the quality of services that government delivers to citizens, according to the dxw boss.

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He said: “If buyers publish bids that suppliers cannot understand, they are not going to get good bids. And, if they do not get good bids, they cannot make sensible decisions, which ultimately leads to bad outcomes for users. That is a straight line – if you have not got the process right at the start, you won’t get the right result.”

CCS has various existing tools designed to help buyers put together bids, including some written advice published online. The agency also holds various workshops and webinars designed to improve attendees’ skills in writing commercial opportunity notices.

A spokesperson said: “CCS supports public bodies to continually improve the quality of their opportunity notices.”

A total of 2,018 suppliers feature on the Digital Outcomes and Specialists 2 framework, and CCS claimed that 94% of these are SMEs. Between them, the two digital outcomes vehicles have generated a cumulative total of £164.5m in sales, of which £55.9m – equating to 34% – has gone to SMEs. 

When it reaches the end of its initial year-long term later this month, Digital Outcomes and Specialists 2 is to be extended for another 12 months. Two more of CCS’s ‘Digital Future’ portfolio of frameworks, namely G-Cloud 9 and Cyber Security Services 2, are also shortly to be renewed, rather than reiterated. 

The extensions come as CCS and GDS work together to build the Crown Marketplace, an online store due to launch in 2019, through which government will be able to buy a comprehensive range of goods and services. The platform is expected to, ultimately, subsume and supersede the existing Digital Marketplace, which serves the G-Cloud and digital outcomes frameworks. 

“A lot of opportunities are quite hard to respond to, and do not answer questions around user needs and budget”
Harry Metcalfe, dxw

Chris Farthing, managing director of government procurement and digital specialist Advice Cloud, claimed that an effective way to improve the quality of opportunity notices would be to acknowledge and learn from those that are well put together.

“I would like to see more focus on the good ones – let’s see them as exemplars,” he said. “In my experience, when people see good, they want to replicate it.”

The Advice Cloud chief added that asking buyers to provide feedback to suppliers that failed to make the shortlist for an opportunity would also help.

“It would be good find a way of bringing together what everybody thinks is good, and getting GDS to put that on the Digital Marketplace guidance,” he said.

Farthing praised the “fantastic job” done by dxw in undertaking this research, but said that the problem of poorly written tenders is one that spans both the public and private sectors.

“Over the years I have seen some pretty rubbish tenders in the commercial sector – but the difference is that they are not publicly available,” he added.

Sam Trendall

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