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?

Posted at July 29, 2009 11:12 PM


Colly said on July 30, 2009 12:29 AM

Well said. I absolutely 100% agree, and share the pain.

Marcus said on July 30, 2009 8:01 AM

Morning Andy, my initial reaction was to say ‘that’s just the way it is’ but, thinking about it, I find myself doing less and less of the dreaded PQQs these days. That said, Chris and I found ourselves giggling and groaning at the usual inane and ridiculous questions/demands just the other day. Personal favourite being - Your deliverables must be delivered in person to our delivery bay (i.e. by lorry!). Your article made me realise that we hardly ever bother with them anymore. If there is no personal contact, including discussion about the project then, chances are, you’re making up the numbers and will never win the work anyway.

WindyJon said on July 30, 2009 8:38 AM

You have my sympathies, I’ve been on both sides of this chasm, which as you rightly say, doesn’t help anyone, least of all the smaller design company.

But dating is a two-way process. What do they want out of you? You might not like the look of them, but you’re still seeking their interest.

As someone who used to commission work for a large bureaucratic organisation, and now happily out of that situation, I have been obliged to ask all of the above intrusive questions. If you don’t, then the purchasing departments won’t accept the bids. They have little or no understanding of smaller providers, they just want to ensure that you won’t go bust in the middle of the project.

And long RFPs are merely the way that many people in bureaucratic organisations can justify their salaries. If you don’t actually do anything then you need to make paper.

Rather than just put things out for tender, which we were obliged to, I would actively seek out appropriate design companies and give them a proper briefing, both over the phone and in person. In fact my briefing documents specifically stated that I expected to meet and talk with suppliers before any work on a proposal took place. That way, no one is wasting anyone else’s time.

Having said that, quite a few local companies wouldn’t read or listen to the proposal properly, would fail to meet up, and would just turn up to tender with some glamorous 50 page colour document which totally missed the mark. So listen to the commissioner, they might be human.

The lowest quote DOESN’T always win. A good commissioner will ensure that the paperwork they send out, will allow them to remove a potential supplier from the shortlist, if they can’t fulfil all the criteria. And I’m talking about creativity here, not just financial positions. That’s why there’s so much paper, it protects the commissioner from the rigid procurement procedure, and ensures they can get the right people for the job.

I’ve made lots of awards to small local companies, and local freelancers, simply because they can usually do the job better, faster and with more care than the big agencies.

Smaller companies can get themselves into the dating game quite easily by:
1) Accepting that that’s how large institutions work.
2) Just accept that you have to hand over your accounts and jump through those hoops. Don’t fight it, just hand the paperwork over. Its only going to an accounts department, and they don’t really care.
3) Remember that once you’re on the books, its much easier for you to get repeat work as you’re a proven supplier.
4) Remember that the person commissioning the work usually (hopefully) wants to find the best people for the job. They will twiddle the system to get what they need done.
5) Read the proposal, make time to meet the commissioner, don’t worry about formality if you’re having private one-2-one’s with them. Suggest meeting up for a coffee in town. Don’t grovel, you are an equal partner in the project. The commissioner is looking for you to prove that they have made the right choice. Your skills and results look good on THEIR CVs. They want and need you. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be dating.
6) Pull out and save your time if it doesn’t seem worth it.
7) Project management! Project management! They’ll want clear lines of communication, daily updates. You might be informal but effective, they want to see structure and hierarchy.
8) Don’t worry about submitting short tender documents, but don’t just do a carbon copy tender. At least make it look like you’ve tried.
9) Don’t accept any commission that asks you to submit design ideas first. OK, mock one up if they really demand it, but don’t let them dictate to you.

On first dates you probably want to comb your hair and scrub up well. But once the relationship is properly underway most people do end up farting under the duvet.

I’d better get on with some real work. Bloody self-employed now.

Lawrence said on July 30, 2009 9:25 AM

In my experience (and some very recent) it’s often used as a defence to mask the real issue - a poorly defined project from the inside. So tied up in the process of agreeing the ‘thing’ the real need for the ‘thing’ never gets addressed and it’s left to the agency to pick apart the pieces to try and come up with something that works, often in the few weeks left before a deadline that was set 2 years before and prior to the ‘thing’ being defined.

That said I’ve also witnessed agencies taking public sector for a ride due to lack of knowledge. I think there needs to be more plain speaking and realistic approaches on both sides.

Neli said on July 30, 2009 10:04 AM

Hi there,

Totally agree, but have another question.

We have recently ‘won’ a tender with our local council, confirmed by emal, met the person in charge of it all, then we were waiting for docs to be signed, only to get an email through saying: “…team are reviewing arrangements for communications. And so we are unable to take the project forward…”

Should be just take a deep breath and move foward or actually kick up the fuss?

Any thoughts would be much apprecaited!

Phil said on July 30, 2009 10:24 AM

I’m not in the web design game, but have got a company that could feasibly supply to local authorities. However, the ‘upfront’ form filling that we would need to go through - as well as the ‘policies’ we would need to provide, on sustainability, equalities etc - puts us off even bothering. I’m used to supplying very large compainies, but the process of supplying the public sector is just so protracted that at the moment we just don’t bother. As a councillor, I’m trying to change this but have a suspicion that a lot of the bureaucracy is down to central govt.

Phil said on July 30, 2009 10:31 AM

I’m not in the web design game, but have got a company that could feasibly supply to local authorities. However, the ‘upfront’ form filling that we would need to go through - as well as the ‘policies’ we would need to provide, on sustainability, equalities etc - puts us off even bothering. I’m used to supplying very large compainies, but the process of supplying the public sector is just so protracted that at the moment we just don’t bother. As a councillor, I’m trying to change this but have a suspicion that a lot of the bureaucracy is down to central govt.

Ake Johansson said on July 30, 2009 10:49 AM

Great post!

I’ve also been on both sides of the chasm and hear your pains, but can fully second WindyJon’s take on the matter above (comment no. #3).

His list of steps for getting under the duvet is spot on and I want to emphasize steps 4 and 5. The commissioner really wants to get the best people for the job and often have means to make it so. Therefore meeting with the commissioner is very important. Equally important to paper to them. More important than paper to you since it is your chance to really find out what the project is about.

Lennie said on July 30, 2009 11:17 AM

I work on the other side of the barrier and I cry myself to sleep every night.

Guy Carberry said on July 30, 2009 11:44 AM

I work on both sides so have received and dished out such pain — but perhaps to a lesser extreme than you highlight here. WindyJon is spot on with the advice he gives. It’s usually all about parameters and playing the system that the organisational bureaucrats (who are employed for their love of process, systems and rule-enforcing) put in place. The trick is to find somebody human (and with a certain amount of influence) within the organisation to talk to.

Drew McLellan said on July 30, 2009 2:29 PM

Totally agree, Andy. The whole ‘complete this form in order to express an interest in being considered to be worthy to tender’ stuff just isn’t worth the time. As Marcus says, I think it’s often a sign that you’re being used to make up the numbers.

We’ve done a number of jobs with Local Authorities and the like, and I think a lot of the problem is that they have a single set of rules and processes for hiring any sort of contractor. It’s the same forms and requirements if you’re a consultancy designing a new website, or a construction company fitting new fire escapes to the town hall.

As a company we have millions of pounds of insurance cover that stands no chance of ever being claimed against, simply because it enables an LA worker to tick the box they need to tick to be able to hire us. Well, fair enough.

The sad thing is that all the processes are in place to, in theory, ensure public money is spent without risk. The reality is the process wastes vast amounts of both public and private money.

J-P said on July 30, 2009 3:10 PM

Although I agree with a lot of the points, and I think we have to work out a way to break the large-RFP deadlock, I think suggesting that large RFPs are always the result of a process of bureaucratic self-justification is a bit unfair. We’ve had two large RFPs recently, both from clients that we now know to be actually quite spry (if not always technically agile) and glad to move quickly, with prototyping and minimal ongoing baggage, once the issue of trust has been resolved.

One was a case of internal documentation being presented to us. The document contained a lot of information about their pre-RFP brainstorming and research on internal and historical process, that needed to end up somewhere: it went to us!

The other situation was where a different agency had been contracted to a discovery process that had only really partially uncovered the full extent of the project, and the client hadn’t bought into much of the discovery process. Despite its size, we therefore had to do a lot of specification flesh it out.

Maybe you could argue that the “self-justification” makes some sense in terms of third parties employed by the client being paid by the page, but that would be being unfair to our peers… it’s more down to the client’s often understandable fear that any documentation they leave out will lead to spiralling costs, even if the documentation, however useful elsewhere, is barely of use to the project going forwards. How we tackle that fear is far more important than why a person in a given position is generating the paperwork.

Dave said on July 30, 2009 4:47 PM

Pointless, antiquated approach, should have gone the way of the dodo by now. Surely there is a better approach. My advise, if you can avoid them, then do and concentrate on getting work elsewhere.

Or make a committed effort and use your industry clout to educate these organisations and change the way RFP are done. Perhaps a campaign is called for!

Sarah Bourne said on July 30, 2009 7:40 PM

I hope you don’t think those of us on the other side like this process. In my case, procurement processes are legally mandated. Once upon a time, decades ago, some contract was awarded to somebody’s brother-in-law and somebody made a fuss about it. So they made a law to make sure that never happens again. Doing things that you think normal, like having a nice telephone chat, can actually cause you to be eliminated for consideration.

As I posted on Twitter once, “Sometimes getting what you need under govt procurement rules feels like giving a physics lecture in mime.”

Jeff Bridgforth said on August 4, 2009 3:43 PM

Interesting that you use a dating metaphor here. Kevin Hale used the same type of metaphor in a talk he gave at He was talking about the relationship between a Web app or product and its customers.

It would be nicer if businesses remembered that there are people on the other end of their correspondence. Sometimes the human relationship is lost in an electronic world where you donít have to see people face-to-face or at least hear their voice on the phone.

It would also be nice if business professionals would treat creative professionals as professionals.

Thanks for the post Andy.

Keri Henare said on August 4, 2009 7:56 PM

On the most part, we are very lucky with our clients. We receive a lot of our business through referral and that helps to build the trust right from the beginning.

However, we recently had a client try to give us the same agreement that they give their suppliers, when we were just creating a Human Resources site for them. They had been burned pretty badly by a previous lover developer so we were understanding within reason. We did ask them to remove the sections about us being liable for there loss of production time, us having to provide them with suitable clothing for operating the product we were providing and the bit about having to show them how to disassemble, reassemble and maintain the product.

If the client is being too difficult in these early stages (without a valid reason) then it could be a warning sign that they are going to be more of a problem than you’ll probably want.

PS said on August 20, 2009 7:59 PM

Like others who have commented, I have been both sides. When projects exceed certain thresholds, European Union law kicks in and the public sector has no choice other than to go out to open tender (OJEU). How can an organisation talk through a project with 300+ companies that register interest? Yes, 300+ in one of the tenders. Impossible.

In an ideal world that face to face dialogue would be possible, but hands are tied. Clearly it’s a lose/lose situation.

I for one have the highest regard for web designers and understand the frustration and dehumanising procurement process. I wish it could be otherwise, but it isn’t.

What is clear to me is that you have to play the game (if you can be bothered).

See the PQQ for what it is: it’s like a CV that’s trying to get you to an interview. Make sure you read what’s being asked for and present the best you have to offer.

Think it’s dehumanising from the designers’ side? Try it from the other side and then you’ll understand how dehumanising and frustrating it is also.

So a plea: don’t shoot the messenger - they don’t make the rules. They wouldn’t approach you if they didn’t have the utmost respect for your work and a desire to work with you.

The public sector (and by definition the public - you and me) deserve good web design.

nike@deaf said on September 24, 2009 2:22 PM

we recently had a client try to give us the same agreement that they give their suppliers, when we were just creating a Human Resources site for them. They had been burned pretty badly by a previous lover developer so we were understanding within reason.