The sad fact is that many web projects will fail even before they begin. The problem lies in the way we commission these projects.
There are many things I will miss about my time at Headscape. But enduring the tendering process is not one of them. Website procurement is a mess. In fact, I want no part of it in my new business venture. That is because I believe it is fundamentally flawed for both parties.
Take for example the process by which we produce our invitations to tender. We involve the wrong people in its creation and that damages the project from the outset.
Wrong people making the decisions
Many tender documents are the result of internal politics. They are also written with little understanding of digital. When somebody with digital experience does contribute to the process they are one voice among many.
Even if this process does end in a half decent brief it still suffers from one major shortcoming. The people who are going to build the product are not involved in the decision-making process. Rarely is the agency involved in shaping the brief. In fact, in an increasing number of cases the agency has no contact whatsoever with the people who wrote the invitation to tender.
This is absolute insanity! It means the specification is written with no regards to the practicality of its implementation. What is more the client benefits from none of the in-depth knowledge provided by the agency.
None of this would be an issue if the brief provided was a flexible document open to discussion. Unfortunately this is rarely the case.
Website procurement lacks flexibility
The typical project I used to work on at Headscape was large and complex. With many stakeholders and complex challenges it took a long time to agree upon a brief. This meant that once issued the client was always reluctant to amend that brief based on agency feedback. After all it would mean more weeks of negotiation to agree on the amendments.
Not only was the specification in flexible, so was the budget. Agreement on budgets have to happen months in advance. This means they have little or no feedback from the people who will build the project. The figures selected are often a stab in the dark and yet once agreed there is a reluctance to reconsider them.
Most invitations to tender are exposed to the archaic processes of procurement departments. Most of the procedures created by these departments focus on the buying of commodities. They are just inappropriate for the commissioning of digital services.
They limit communication and impose restrictions preventing agencies from providing an accurate quote. Let alone make suggestions for improvements. These processes are sometimes so out of date that once we received a request to deliver a website on a lorry!
The idea of these procurement processes is to ensure value for money and prevent fraud. But all they succeeds in doing is creating a competitive tender process that is farcical.
Competitive tender process is a farce
To prevent favouritism or legal challenges, procurement departments often limit questions to written submissions. Not only does this prevent discussion it also undermines the selection of a good supplier.
One of the key skills required by a good digital agency is the ability to ask poignant questions. Questions that uncover fundamental issues that need addressing. A good question will lead to an enlightening answer that improves the quality of an agency’s response.
But in the interests of “fairness” many procurement departments share these answers with all. This means everybody benefits from the insights even if they did not have the experience to ask the right questions.
Also the idea that a competitive tender process is in any way fairer is ridiculous. If a client has a preferred supplier, forcing them to go out to competitive tender does nothing but waste everybody’s time.
Many times we went through a competitive tender process even though there was no doubt the client would select us at the end. There were other occasions when we were just making up the numbers. We had no hope of selection because the client already had a preferred supplier.
But this doesn’t just waste the time of agencies. Reviewing proposals and carrying out pitch meetings takes a lot of time. This is especially true as most companies will involve several people in the selection process.
Procurement departments address this issue by making competitive tenders unnecessary below a certain value. But this just leads to clients splitting projects to keep them below that threshold. The lesson here is simple. If somebody wants to circumvent these rules they will do so. All they do is waste people’s time.
Of course it is easy to complain about the existing system, but what is the alternative?
How things need to change
I do not claim to be an expert in procurement. But it occurs to me there are three simple steps that could make website procurement better.
First, write briefs that identify a problem and request submissions for possible solutions. In other words, move away from specifying solutions and instead ask agencies to solve your problems for you.
The client would receive more value for money from the agency. It would also provide more practical and cost-effective solutions.
Next, don’t leap into large projects with new suppliers straightaway. Start with a smaller project. A discovery and recommendations phase. This will help define the best solution and allow the opportunity to discover the suitability of your supplier.
This approach will also mitigate the risk that concerns procurement departments.
Finally, talk to your procurement department about an alternative approach to the competitive tender. Purchasing digital services is not like buying a commodity.
When buying a commodity asking for three quotes provides something you can compare. This is because they will be quotes for exactly the same commodity.
But when you received three quotes for building a website the chances of these being compatible is small. This is because each agency will approach the problem in a different way.
The competitive tender process is about ensuring value for money from your supplier. So if you want to ensure that you get that, why not ask another digital professional to assess a proposals pricing and deliverables?
This second “assessing” party will never have the opportunity to bid on the work. This means there will be no conflict of interest.
You would have to pay them for this service. But compared to the cost of a competitive tender process this is good value for money.
This may sound like a radical approach, but it is something that I have done before and I can promise you it works. I’ve assessed another agencies bid and it led to a productive and healthy discussion. The end result was better value for the client and less time wasted.
The lesson here is a simple one. Just as digital is changing almost every aspect of how we do business it also is challenging how we approached procurement. It is time to consider alternative approaches to commissioning websites. Approaches that will ensure better value from suppliers and deliver more appropriate solutions.