A tender request, please

Last week Lauren and I took part in GovCamp Co-Lab ‘unconference’. The day was hosted by John Wells, Alison Hornery & Martin Stewart-Weeks as a precursor to a larger scale government innovation camp to be held later in the year.

The basic idea of GovCamps is to explore innovative solutions to public service problems. It’s the sort of space that Meld Studios revels in yet is unable to access (in a commercial sense) because requests for tenders from government are often too restrictive, too solutions focused and don’t support the separation of process and outcome. Basically they don’t fit our design methodology.

As we discussed in our work group, tenders are great for things like buying tissues where you already know what is required and no thinking outside the (tissue) box is necessary (sorry, couldn’t resist that one). But for problems which are a bit messy and require deeper investigation, a tender is extremely limiting. As one person in our group said “if you only employ bridge builders, you’ll only ever get a bridge”. But, as he went onto say, “what about all of the other possibilities?” You could drain the river, supply kayaks, or build facilities on both sides of the river so that crossings didn’t need to happen as frequently, thereby saving the money you were going to spend on the bridge. What this metaphor shows is that the current tender process often locks onto a single solution too soon thereby limiting the ability to investigate other options, some of which may be cheaper.

If tenders are not working, what is the solution? Harking back to something that Dan Hill from the Helsinki Design Lab spoke about when he was here late last year, what if a Request for Tenders became a Request for Questions or Requests for Ideas? What if the initial step built upon the established Expression of Interest (EOI) phase to become more about gathering innovative responses to the problem space rather than just asking for company details and expertise? The government department could then use these responses to formulate a better brief.  As another person in our group and my namesake Kimberley said (how weird it is to address yourself in a conversation?), tenders are often at the wrong place in the project, they are too early.

This ‘crowdsourcing’ technique for gathering feedback on tenders and procurement is currently being utilised by the Department of Finance & Regulation (DFR) in a blog format. The DFR are gathering responses on how they can simplify procurement and reduce transaction costs whilst still satisfying the legal and ethical requirements of the department. Responses are being gathered through open blog comments which will then been used to refine the approach. It’s an open and transparent activity which bears further investigation I think, especially as it reduces the burden of work for external companies usually associated with EOI or tender documents.

Another idea (proposed by a different work group at GovCamp) would require some heavy-duty silo breaking but could work well for redesigning the tender process. Their idea involved creating a type of ‘war room’ where cross-disciplinary teams could meet to work out problems together. Government staff could choose to have a sort of Google 20% time added to their yearly performance targets whereby they would spend a few days per year in the room helping others within the government to solve a problem. As these collaborative workshops would be part of their day-to-day tasks, problems associated with the lack of budget for this type of work would all but disappear. It’s not the type of work which would attract everyone, of course, but to give staff the option could be a great way to foster innovation and break down silos within government.

Many other challenges were identified by our group with tenders. We looked widely at all types of staffing, technology and process issues that are contributing to the problem. It was a good opportunity to look at a public service problem that, if solved, could really help governments to produce more innovative outcomes for their constituents. If this sort of work is something that you are interested in I encourage you to sign up for the GovCampNSW Co-innovation Challenge later in the year.




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