FEATURE29 January 2013

The new deal

As the UK government looks to overhaul the former COI research roster, Brian Tarran asks a panel of experts what their hopes are for the future of research procurement in Westminster.

The UK government’s decision to close the Central Office of Information (COI) in March arguably created more problems than it solved, especially if you are of the opinion that the closure itself was motivated only by the desire to save money.

In our retrospective on the COI, we wrote: “People might well grasp the political logic of the decision, but very few would argue that the government has mapped out a credible plan for the aftermath.” And nine months on, the Government Procurement Service (GPS), the body that took over the management of the COI’s communications services rosters, is still struggling to work out what to do about market research.

The current research roster of 102 agencies remains in place until June, but the process of re-tendering – originally slated to begin in September – remains “under consideration”.In the mean time, the GPS has been asking the industry how the government should go about buying market research services. In turn we’ve asked a hand-picked group of experts what they think.

Our expert panel...

From left to right: Fiona Wood, former COI research director, now a consultant; Debrah Harding, the COO of the Market Research Society, which has formally contributed to the GPS consultation; Nick Baker, managing director of Quadrangle, a long-time supplier to government and Penny Meigh of Step Beyond, an independent consultant and specialist in social research.

Research: In reviewing the old COI roster, GPS asked specifically about whether to continue splitting it into lots defined by research methodology and specialism – should it?

Fiona Wood (FW): From my perspective, the framework should be segmented primarily by the ability to meet specific business objectives across both policy and communications issues. But whatever happens, you will always need to be able to drill down into specialisms and audiences, because of the very diverse and complex needs of government. Although there are many great researchers across Whitehall and beyond, there will always be substantial amounts of research bought by specialists in other disciplines, who will find it difficult to assess exactly what is fit for purpose without any sign posting at all.

Debrah Harding (DH): Through our own consultations with all those interested in this topic – suppliers large and small, in-house government researchers and buyers – it was clear that the approach of the old roster was no longer suitable. One of the MRS recommendations to GPS is that they should procure research services to address specific business problems. Research methodologies are tools, not research business solutions.

Nick Baker (NB): Research methods are a means to an end, a vehicle to achieve something else, so surely it makes much more sense to organise a roster by purpose rather than method? To think in terms of qual and quant is to miss the point: the world is both and neither. A GPS roster should be much more about categories that link to purpose, for example management research or innovation, ideation etc.

Penny Meigh (PM): Agencies, large and small, generally select the best method, or combination of methods, to provide the business solution and will have a raft of possible methods to choose from, with new ones evolving all the time. Unless the buyer is highly experienced – as they were in COI – specifying the exact method within a brief means that the expertise of the agency or researcher is not fully utilised. It would be better to split the roster by business specialism.

GPS also asked about roster size. COI famously had a large number of agencies on its roster. Is size important to ensure government has plenty of options?

Government should adopt a flexible approach when buying research services. The problem with the current rosters is that they are closed.

FW: The size of the framework should be related to the amount of spend that will be driven through it and the ability to meet a range of diverse research needs. Since these variables are subject to influences beyond the control of any single team, it is very easy to end up with a framework that is too large or too small.

DH: Government should adopt a flexible approach when buying research services. The problem with the current rosters is that they are closed. The research market is dominated by SMEs, niche and specialist suppliers in addition to the small number of very large research groups, all of which should have an equal chance to supply research services to government. MRS has recommended that the government uses established, reliable and recognised resources such as the Research Buyer’s Guide, which would save government time and money and guarantee that research is only bought from regulated suppliers.

NB: The COI roster was far too big and actually worked against the democratic principles that appeared to be its fundament. By sending a brief to 70-odd agencies, over time, you decrease the likelihood of getting a good range of responses as many agencies do not feel it is worth responding with such a low chance of winning. It also seemed to accentuate a culture of low-cost focus, rather than looking at the potential value from different responses. There is clearly a need for a diverse range of agencies, but it would be better to allow an element of choice within a roster, where purchasers can use judgement, experience and their expertise to influence a sensible pitch list.

PM: The interesting thing is that GPS doesn’t seem to have yet decided exactly which government departments and public services such a roster would cover – whether it would be restricted to essentially the previous COI remit or potentially expanded throughout the whole public sector. That’s pretty critical in deciding how large it should be. But yes, generally larger rosters work well for both buyers and suppliers (and especially for SMEs and independents), provided that the number of RFQs for each project is limited, but not just to the same select few each time.

SMEs and sole traders have complained before about the burden placed on them when pitching for government work. What changes are needed to make the procurement process more inclusive for them?

FW: There is doubtless more that government can do to help reduce the burden on SMEs, but sometimes the main tensions are caused by legal procurement requirements, many of which there are no way round. There are no easy answers here, but it is helpful if research buyers are sympathetic to how labour-intensive pitching is and prepared to spend time giving meaningful feedback.

DH: A fundamental re-think of the terms and conditions that underpin government contracts is essential. Currently, small and micro suppliers are being disenfranchised as they are unable to afford the contractual requirements to supply research services to government. Disproportionate burdens are being placed on suppliers such as unlimited indemnity or numerous warranties.

NB: There are company-specific criteria which make it very difficult, but not impossible, for much smaller businesses. Thinking sensibly about the requirements that are placed on businesses at which stage of the process is perhaps the best way to ensure that effort is spent proportional to the potential reward.

PM: It can currently take days or even weeks for an independent contractor to put a bid together – knowing all the time that we stand negligible chance of success. The end result is that all but a handful of Independent Consultant Group members say they have given up tendering for public sector work at all. A far leaner two- (or even three-) stage process would help alleviate the situation, as would standardised, relevant policies.

Budgets are tight, meaning costs are under pressure. In seeking to get the most value out of research, what factors should government consider in setting project budgets?

FW: When times are tough, the importance of value for money increases exponentially. But value for money is a two-way process – you need to be clear upfront in defining what value means for you so that an agency has a chance of delivering it. I don’t think this is always recognised by research buyers, who can be under pressure to buy primarily on price and whose internal clients are often dealing with layers of complexity in terms of their requirements.

The budget in and of itself needs to be realistic in relation to the objectives. The biggest danger in measuring providers on the basis of cost is how it squeezes quality out of the research process

DH: The most important thing is that research effectively undertaken answers the business problem that the government has. It’s not so much about absolute budget amounts rather efficient and effective procurement of the right research solutions to address business challenges.

NB: The budget in and of itself needs to be realistic in relation to the objectives. The biggest danger in measuring providers on the basis of cost is how it squeezes quality out of the research process, as well as the time to interpret and fully analyse and develop true insights and understand this in the context of what organisations are trying to achieve. There is a requirement for taxpayers’ monies to be spent on work which will actually drive decision-making and really connect with the objectives that government has, not simply provide interviews and a basic interpretation of ‘what people said’.

PM: Helping provide and promote highly effective public services that the public want and need must be the core reason for commissioning research, not justifying decisions that have already been made. And government should recognise that lowest price does not typically equate to best value.

Are there any other flaws you would point to in the way government currently buys research services? How can these be rectified?

FW: I know from experience that it is very easy to criticise those working in the public sector, so it is important to acknowledge that a lot of very good research is procured very well by those in government. But there is always room for improvement, and one of the key issues for many years has been a stronger propensity to share research more widely and having the IT and cultural infrastructure to support this.

DH: There is an enormous amount of waste and duplication, particularly in administrative procedures. MRS has recommended that government streamlines these by adopting some simple changes
such as standardising core documentation and information requirements and storing such information centrally.

NB: The big one for us is to be less prescriptive in the research specifications. While we understand there’s pressure to do so for ease of comparability and demonstrating value for money, it does stifle original thinking and the application of smarter solutions and, paradoxically, undermines agencies’ ability to maximise value for money.

PM: Many (but not all) procurement departments – and some commissioners of research – don’t really seem to understand research and so place huge emphasis on price and buying a known brand. This means that SMEs and independents get pushed out when they could provide a highly skilled and better-value service. Streamlining the procurement process and removing onerous requirements would help us do that.