The public sector web design dating game | July 29, 2009

Somebody contacts you out of the blue, possibly through a friend or from an advert you posted on a dating site, interested in meeting up for a drink and possibly more. They like what they’ve seen so far, but before telling you about themselves, they want a little more information. It’s noting big and perfectly normal. They just want a copy of your passport, your last quarter bank statement and the phone numbers of your past couple of dates. Oh, and could you sign this contract agreeing with my standard date conditions assuming I chose to go out with you.

From the persons point of view, this approach makes a lot of sense. They know there are a lot of sharks out there and may even have been bitten before, so prior to releasing any details about themselves, they want to make sure that you are who you say you are. They’ve also dated far too many cheapskates in their time, so want to ensure that you’ve got money in the bank and won’t start scrounging off them, or worse still, run out halfway during the date without paying . Lastly, they don’t want to waste their time, so want to chat to your exes to see what you were like, how you treated them and why they didn’t take things further.

The only problem is, this approach doesn’t make you feel particularly wanted or valued. In fact it’s rather insulting and dehumanising. It starts the relationship off on a negative footing, assuming that you’ll turn out to be a scoundrel and forcing you to prove otherwise. It’s also asking for a lot of personal information without giving anything back in return. It’s all a bit one sided. So if you’re a half decent person you’ll probably turn the offer down and keep looking for a nicer, more reasonable person instead. Somebody who approaches you as an equal and treats you with the care and respect you deserve.

The irony is, in a bid to filter out the scoundrels and wastrels, this person has actually scared off their only chance of meeting somebody nice. Instead, the kind of people who would respond to this tactic are the professional players. The kind of people who stand in a bar every night flashing the keys to their Porsche, hoping to impress you with their designer wardrobes and their well rehearsed patter. The type of people your mom always warned you about. You may date for a while, but ultimately it will be a shallow and unsatisfying experience, and they will quickly move on to their next conquest. For them it’s about the game rather than the quality of the relationship.

Now this is obviously an unrealistic and frankly ludicrous scenario in the world of dating. However it’s the norm when commissioning design services from the public sector. Rather than a polite email or phone call, you’ll often get sent an impersonal email asking you to tender for work. These emails usually take you to some kind of tendering portal that requires a 10 step registration process before you even know what the tender is for. Sometimes you’re given a 378 page RFP (seriously, I had one of these only the other week) which still doesn’t explain what the project is about. At other times, before even being sent the RPF you’re forced to fill in a formal “letter of interest.” These documents can be very long and time consuming, taking days to complete and asking all kinds of intimate questions from the amount of money you make to the racial make-up of your team! They will often include legal terms which force you into a timeline or kick-off date before you even know what the project is about (I had one of these the other week as well)!

The whole process seems dehumanising and designed to elicit the worst response from the worst kind of agencies. Smaller agencies rarely have the time or resources to respond to these tenders, so you end up limiting yourself to sausage factories. Big agencies who spend their whole time responding to tenders in a cookie cutter fashion, going in with the lowest quote in the hope of wining the pitch. No time is spent talking to the clients or understanding the problem, because the process doesn’t allow for this. As such it’s largely as numbers game, devolving design to a pure commodity. So is it any wonder that the majority of public sector sites are so bad if the tendering process actively encourages this type of behaviour?

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