Harry's Home on the Web
Since I started dxw a few years ago, surprisingly little has changed in the way that we contract with Government. Now that the Government Digital Service has thoroughly arrived on the scene, I thought it might be a good time to write something about how I think contracting for digital ought to work. Or perhaps more accurately, how it should smell.
I’ve never worked as a civil servant, and I’m not a legal expert. The only experience I have of procurement is that of a small supplier to Government trying to get things done. So, this post is neither comprehensive, nor a solution. More a statement of principle.
There are many problems with the contracts under which Government currently works with SMEs (at least, all the ones I’ve seen). They’re too long. They’re not really being used for the purpose they were designed for.
But, on a much more practical level, they’re so long and abstruse that no one reads them. I really mean that: neither the client, nor the supplier, nor, I often suspect, the procurement staff. They are universally regarded as an unavoidable bit of bureaucracy on the route to starting a project. They are almost never challenged, because they have existed throughout the aeons, having been handed down from on high.
These contracts contain lots of detail that — theoretically — defines the working relationship between government and it suppliers. And I suspect that they do exactly that when Government takes on big projects with big suppliers. But those processes are totally inappropriate for a working relationship with an SME — and the smaller the SME, the less sensible they become. For a company like dxw, they’re absurd.
We very rarely deal with change requests, serving written notices, purchase order amendments, management information, audit requirements, getting permission for staff changes, or any of the myriad other things that these contracts tend to require. Because when we’re working on a project, there are generally two or three people at dxw working with two or three civil servants. And the biggest project we’ve ever had was worth about £30k.
When you’re talking about that number of people, and that value of contract, most of the working arrangements in these contracts become ridiculous. Because they’re designed for much bigger teams, working on much bigger things.
When the teams are small, these arrangements are worse than a waste of time. If we were to follow the letter of these contracts, we’d spend more time on management than on delivering useful things. We’d have to charge lots more money to cover all that time, and the client would get next to no value out of that extra spend.
So, we don’t. And the client doesn’t ask us to. And we all play out the charade, going through the motions of a procurement process that everyone knows is overcomplicated, and that no one intends to think about after the project starts.
Strangely enough, this is ok, in practice. Because in practice, these projects involve a small number of people who are like-minded, and who share a common understanding of a project and its goals for success. The contracts we all agree to aren’t ignored out of malice. No one is being duplicitous. It’s just that they’re obviously unnecessary, and everyone gets by just fine without thinking about them.
Most of our clients no longer even require us to write a formal proposal. Instead, we write a short letter explaining what we’re going to do, by when, and what it will cost. This works best for everyone, because it’s short, readable and useful. But it still sits within a framework contract and a procurement process that aren’t fit for purpose. That are designed to shape a complex working relationship that doesn’t exist, and to facilitate litigation that will never happen.
Because of the efforts of right-thinking clients who just want to get the job done, and who understand the relationship, we’ve ended up with day-to-day working practices which are quite good. But they’re not formally recognised, or enshrined in any process. And that’s a missed opportunity: because the civil servants who need to commission a digital project for the first time, or who work within a more traditional government department, will turn to the process for guidance. As they should. And the process is maddeningly, hopelessly wrong.
So, I think there should be a new process. Since I only know about digital and SMEs, I’ll say that that’s what the process should be for. But these ideas probably apply more widely. I think we need a new framework contract and process which:
- Values brevity and simplicity above comprehensiveness, ignoring unlikely scenarios in favour of increasing usefulness and readability
- Has a primary, core purpose of leaving all the parties better informed about the project, what they’re supposed to do and what’s expected of them, and what success looks like
- Is written for the benefit of the staff actually delivering the project (SME and government), and not for lawyers, procurement staff, or as a tool for litigation
- Is written using language and styling that makes it likely that those people will actually read and absorb it
At its root, the process needs to recognise that in digital projects (and probably other ones too) success far more often emanates from the close and effective personal relationships of people acting in good faith than it does in detailed specification of process, requirements or outcomes.
Those bullet points accurately describe what almost every project we’ve ever worked on has ended up smelling like, despite the procurement process and legalese.
For dxw, procurement will be “fixed” when the process we follow is designed to facilitate and enhance that relationship. I hope we get there soon.
Note: there’s an update at the bottom.
Since writing this, I’ve also found this post from the BJP, and Stefan has kindly posted a link to a post by Bruce Schneier. Also, the BJP have filed a Freedom of Information request asking for information about the policy. All good stuff!
I visited Aldwych tube station recently. I had been looking forward to it for some time, and turned up camera-in-hand, ready to take some interesting photos — which, frankly, was most of the reason I went.
When I got to the queue, my bag was searched. And my suspicions roused by a security man who said I couldn’t take my camera in, because it had a zoom lens. I thought this was rather odd. I offered to put on my 50mm prime (non-zoom) lens, and he said that was fine. But I was still suspicious.
Then, when we got into the station, one of the London Transport Museum staff said “No digital SLRs” — and there were signs dotted about, to the same effect. Suspicion started to turn to irritation.
Eventually, I managed to ask one of the LTM volunteers about the rule, and he said it was because they wanted to “limit the amount of high-quality footage of the station” — a statement later confirmed by others. At this point, irritation turned to outright anger. And I took this picture, as a minor act of rebellion.
So: what on earth do the London Transport Museum think they’re doing? It seemed a odd rule to begin with, and its justification, even stranger. Why would they want to limit high-resolution pictures? And even if they had a good reason to do that, why would they think that banning DSLRs accomplish it? Does. Not. Compute.
I had a look about, and found LTM’s mission statement:
By conserving and explaining the Capital city’s transport heritage, London Transport Museum offers people an understanding of the Capital’s past development and engages them in the debate about its future.
We adopt the highest standards of curatorship and communication, and aim to be the world’s leading museum of urban transport.
So. Do LTM really think that restricting the availability of high-resolution pictures of Aldwych accords with the highest standards of communication? Do they think that preventing people seeing and learning about Aldwych is the kind of thing the world’s leading museum of urban transport should be doing?
Is it not more likely that their role as a museum should be to encourage more people to see Aldwych? To engage with it, photograph it, learn about it, share it, discuss and understand it, spread the word about it and generate interest in their mission and their subject?
I am utterly baffled that in the digital age, there still appear to be museums who think that these kind of restrictions are necessary. Or sensible. Or even, heaven forfend, good.
Museums are the guardians of our cultural heritage, not the owners of it. Museums should want photographs of their collections coming out of their ears, and getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
If you agree, why not send them a message, and let them know?
The LTM have responded, thusly:
Terms and conditions for the recent sale of tickets to visit Aldwych Underground station clearly stated that digital SLR cameras were not permitted, as these are classed as professional equipment.
There was not a ban on taking photos during tours. However, there were restrictions on professional cameras and tripods because we were concerned that people using them could delay the tours for others, as it was a very tight schedule with more than 2,500 visitors going up and down a spiral staircase of about 160 steps to get to and from the platforms.
We wanted to make the tours as enjoyable and safe as we could for everyone. With the huge public interest in seeing the disused Tube station it was better to have the event with this restriction rather than no visit at all.
We apologise to visitors who wanted to use this kind of camera during tours to the stations.
This is really just a bit silly, and reveals how flimsy this policy is.
If the LTM want to ensure smooth flow, and therefore ban tripods, that’s completely fine and understandable. The last thing anyone wants is to be held up by people getting in the way, and people waving tripods around probably raises legitimate safety concerns. So: that’s fine. Ban tripods.
But to say that this concern means DSLRs should be banned as well is a non-sequitur. I would have had no difficulty sticking to the time limits — which were made very clear by the courteous and efficient tour staff, and which everyone obeyed.
If people with compacts can take photos without holding things up, why not people with DSLRs?
- Cool stuff
- Odds & Ends
- February 2013
- November 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- September 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- August 2010
- July 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- October 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009