Hive mind: 5 reasons to build dialogue into your commissioning process

Are orthodox commissioning procedures failing your users? Pull more thinking power in and everyone wins, says Sam Bassett

Imagine walking into a car showroom looking for the best price on a blue car that will do 60mph. You have a pretty clear idea of what you’re going to get, right? Now imagine saying to the whole transport sector ‘I want to get from A to B as efficiently and comfortably as possible. What have you got?’

When my team in Suffolk went to the market with our digital care specification, we didn’t know what we wanted the end model to look like. We had a vision, and some big asks that were not negotiable, but plenty that was up for discussion. So, we intentionally designed a specification that was quite ambiguous.

We had an open dialogue, working some partnership questions in there: how would we work together to get the best model possible?

Adding negotiation to your procurement process won’t work for every situation, every budget, or every timescale, but I’ve seen some big benefits.

It gives you informed choice

There’s an expectation on commissioners to know everything but, actually, should you? If you’re being really ambitious how could you possibly know just how far you can go? Before we went to tender we did an informal market engagement; I spoke to lots of suppliers and got a really broad understanding of the market. We had loads of good chats, and later lots of applications.

Engaging and challenging as wide a sample of the market as possible helps you understand the good offers from the bad. For us, a flexible process allowing input and dialogue also helped us write our initial specification.

It mitigates risk

 As a commissioner I don’t always know best. Now, if I’m scared to admit that and blindly press ahead I not only risk wasting a tonne of public money but also failing to give people the best outcomes, because my model is built on a single person’s knowledge and perspective. There’s also the issue of compromise. With a closed procurement process there may be 20 different areas you evaluate; maybe the best bid scores really highly on 15 points but five are a real worry.

Then you have to make a compromise based around risk. The open process allows you to engage through the whole process and thrash things out in those areas that concern you. The bidder understands what’s most important so you can minimise the compromise.

It sharpens your spec

Building negotiation into the competitive process allows you to go back and change your original specification. That’s the key thing; it refines your ask. In our case there were some bits of my original specification I had to change because the market said ‘We don’t understand that’, or ‘For our technical expertise that’s probably not achievable’. Other elements prompted caution, or optimism, or excitement about what we were asking for, which showed me we were definitely on the right track.

We were making suppliers stretch the limits of their service, which was great. We wanted an aspirational service, not something previously available. I was able to iterate on the specification, to say ‘Now, based on our engagement, this is what we want.’ We used others’ expertise to validate our vision and it helped us solidify our expectations.

It improves your relationships with the market

We had open negotiation with suppliers; we all got together around the table and had conversations about what a successful model should look like. It might seem like an awkward dynamic, but do you know what? They loved it! All our bidders reflected on what a unique and successful process it was, and how they would prefer other processes to run this way. A few bidders dropped out but even that was helpful, because they understood they couldn’t deliver what we needed. We left on really good terms even with the unsuccessful bidder. They found it helpful to hear about our ambitions and were glad for the opportunity to reflect on what they offer.

It gives better outcomes

Our approach won’t work for all local authorities – pressures of time, finances and politics can all impact on your needs – but I think it’s important to be open to dialogue. This work is really hard, but it’s really important. We’re providing an offer to support people to live better, for longer, more safely and independently. If we don’t get that right – if we don’t use collective expertise across the sector including the users themselves – we exacerbate people’s issues, and that’s unforgivable.

Sam Bassett is digital care and innovation lead at Suffolk County Council

This blog is the second in a two-part series on commissioning digital technology solutions. Read part one here.

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