Some of the best work we’ve done in the last year has been in partnership with our suppliers. In Hackney we’re particularly fortunate to have some of the world’s best digital agencies on our doorstep, many of whom have been helping us explore opportunities to redesign the Council’s services.
Whilst there’s an expectation that suppliers will work hard to fit in with our needs, we can produce better work at lower cost if we’re good to work with. We’ve been advertising tenders for individual pieces of work on the government’s Digital Marketplace which is a transparent and fair process, through which it now takes a couple of weeks to purchase a service, rather than traditional procurement exercises that run for months.
We invited a group, comprising leaders of agencies with which we’ve worked, to help us explore five questions. How might we:
- Reveal our core challenges / opportunities and digital pipeline so that agencies can identify emerging opportunities to do business with Hackney?
- Procure for user needs whilst enabling suppliers to build capacity to support us and plan resourcing?
- Work in collaboration with agencies to get the most out of the skills they have to offer?
- Ensure we develop long term expertise amongst colleagues, whilst remain focused on immediate delivery?
- Identify emerging opportunities that we don’t yet know we need?
We learned four key things that can help us work better:
It’s important for us to think aloud, at an early stage of our thought process, so that suppliers can understand the aims for a Council service, and therefore how an individual piece of work contributes to those aims. Thinking aloud is more transparent and efficient for all (avoiding lots of individual conversations) but it also offers the prospect to approach something differently – whether in partnership with others or building on other work.
We’ve been purchasing in an ‘Agile’ way. We advertise an opportunity as soon as we’re ready to start (ie once we have the need, people and budget aligned) and aim to complete the buying process in a couple of weeks for a job that is likely to take less than three months. Agencies find out about the opportunity when it’s posted. But running any profitable client services business means staff will be deployed on fee-paying work around 85% of the time. So whether or not an agency has the capacity immediately to Hackney, or put its best team on the job, is down to chance. We need to signpost earlier, without losing our agility.
One of the key things suppliers want to know, is why we’re looking for support. Is it a non-core job that we want to get out of the way, something of strategic significance, or a small but innovative exploration? And it would also be useful for them to know how confident we are in the work. Have we set our technology direction, or are we open to new ideas? Are the people they’ll be working with seasoned digital practitioners, or are they still learning how to work in new ways? This will help them understand what resources to invest and what we’re trying to achieve.
We’ve been advertising for individual phases of work (typically, discovery, building a prototype, expanding into beta, then building a live service). These jobs are relatively small, especially at the discovery and prototype stages, and the costs of bidding are relatively high. Stuff that’s been working in the initial stages then has to stop mid-flight for procurement. We need to look at how we might tender for bigger opportunities so that we get a more seamless delivery, but we also need to make sure that we don’t make our projects so big they exclude smaller vendors or lose the ability to ‘fail fast’ where that’s the right thing to do.
Our goal is to work with high quality suppliers through which we support local businesses and residents in employment, to build better services for residents. We’ve made a good start, and listening to our suppliers’ perspectives has helped to give us a clear focus for where we should focus to improve further. Over the next couple of months we’ll be experimenting with different approaches to address these issues and then making the ideas that work, core to our approach.