Do procurement portals deliver the value they promise

on 21st December 2012

(Last updated 9th February 2016)

Over the last 3 or 4 years procurement portals have become a more and more common tool for government, charity, NFP and NGO organisations to use when looking for a web design agency.

Many organisations have no option but to use a procurement portal (or an open procurement process) due to funding requirements and governance regulations.

In theory procurement portals are meant to:

  • Ensure fairness -  the tender is open to everyone meeting the criteria
  • Ensure chioice -  the procurer gets a wider selection 
  • Ensure minimum standards are met in the tender process - quality and procedure
  • Reduce corruption and nepotism
  • Guarantee best value

Our experience is however a little different - having worked on many NGO's, charities and Government initiatives,  it's become clear that many talented web design agencies fail to even get through the first stage of the open procurement selection process, whilst a group of companies, who in my judgment are fairly mediocre do particularly well within these selection processes. 

The frustrating reality is that many of these open procurement processes demand a certain structure in their responses, focusing on corporate structures, environmental policies, ethical policies, gender and diversity ratios, financial statements, ISO qualifications, without providing room or scope to highlight the agencies understanding of the project, their skills and the value they would add. 

I actually found myself working on a procurement process for a major government initiative website, where I was required to specify what type of toilet paper would be provided to contractors, whilst at the same time battling within the confines of the required format to show our added value... there wasn't a place within the defined format to discuss the issues, obstacles and potential solutions to these... there was no place within the document to discuss the more qualitative aspects of the project.

In this case we won the project, however in another we were disqualified simply because we signed the document in blue ink rather than black ink!

In practice I would argue that procurement portals actually achieve the opposite of their intended process:

  • they invite so many tenders that the decision makers are swamped with hundreds of documents to evaluate
  • shortlisted companies are the ones who look good on paper, rather then the ones who might be best for the project
  • the format is developed by procurment specialist who focus on issues of importance to them rather then questions about how the agency would deliver
  • documents are often complex and time consuming to fill out, requiring procurement specialists (ninja form fillers) rather then great web developers (many agencies simply give up)
  • flexibility and agility is contracted out of the project due to the defined format of the document
  • ultimately open procurements favour larger, more institutional organisations rather than great web developers

Whilst I understand the logic and reasoning behind open procurement, there are some fundamental issues and problems with this process and ultimately a more suitable approach to the procurement of creative service needs to be developed.

Global common purpose procurement frameworks designed to be applied to a wide range of very different projects (building a hospital, running diversity training programme, maintaining a hydro-power plant and building a sexy website) need to be replaced with more tailored and fit-for-purpose procurement documents, which ask the right questions and focus on the appropriate qualities.

What have been your experiences working with Procurement portals? What's it like working on the receiving end? Setting them up and trying to choose a supplier? We's love to know...