We love the work GDS and others have been doing to improve the provision of digital services in the UK, and want to apply our expertise to one of the most interesting design challenges out there today. However the GDS procurement process is horribly broken, excluding the most experienced teams and favoring cheaper over better. Let's try and do something about this.
We’re passionate about design, and the positive effect it can have on peoples everyday lives. This is one of the reasons why the work we have been doing to help both Brighton & Hove Council and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea improve their digital services has been so rewarding. There is clearly a huge amount of work that needs to be done in order to re-tool the public sector for the digital age, and GDS have done an amazing job of setting the standard, not only for the UK, but across the world.
We’ve been fans of GDS since Paul Annett left Clearleft to become one of their first designers. Since then we’ve had dozens of friends go through GDS, and have looked on from the sidelines wishing we could apply our own design expertise to one of the biggest and most interesting design challenges in the UK at the moment. That’s why we were excited to be part of the government’s Digital Services procurement process, and why the problems with that framework have left us so disappointed.
The best of the UK’s design and development agencies are truly world class, so getting a framework in place that lets these teams properly address problems in the public sector is a no brainer. After two iterations of a framework which promised a lot but failed to deliver, we felt it time to come clean in public about our issues with this process. Ideally this will help fix these problems - the UK public sector deserves to get the best of design and development working on it’s services after all.
The framework as it’s currently set up is essentially a ‘body shopping’ process - candidates have to define generic design and development roles at mid-to-junior level, enter them into a reverse auction to select the 50 cheapest options, and then compete in further mini competitions to supply people to fit into bigger projects. This sort of piecemeal selection of roles strips the value of teams’ experience, techniques, and processes away, just leaving the bare individuals to try and make the best of projects they’ve had no part in setting up or defining.
Another surprising and potentially counterproductive requirement is that all resources must work 100% at the client location. Now we love to work on site with the client, most agencies do, when it makes sense to. But that isn’t necessarily every day, for the whole of the project. The idea of sending lone individuals off site with no support to work on projects isn’t ideal.
We found this whole structure bad enough, but when the reverse auction was changed at the last minute to exclude senior practitioners, we had to walk away. We don’t have intermediate and junior staff - and we’re not the only ones - so there’s no place for an agency like Clearleft in the roster. Essentially it seems like GDS are weeding out the most experienced staff in favour of low-cost resources they can use to pad out their teams - reducing the countries amazing design and dev agencies to little more than recruitment firms.
Rather than just shrug and cry sour grapes we’d like to get this problem fixed. We’re joining several other agencies in lodging our objections to this process and offering to meet with GDS to figure out how firms like us can make a useful contribution to delivering great digital public services. G-CLoud is a step in the right direction, and institutions like the BBC with their Digital Services frameworks (especially the UX&D one that was run last year) have shown that even stringent rigorous processes can be light of touch, and focus on the criteria that really matter.
GDS have hired the best staff and have delivered some amazing work, but to hit all the services and to reach beyond central government into local councils, the wider commercial world of agencies is going to have to play a full role. Digital Services 2 isn’t the way to do that. We want to help find the right way.