How government’s SME relationship should smell

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.