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The Digital Buying Guide – HeX Edition

Written by Ben Leach on

We take a look at the Government’s new advice on digital procurement and add in some additions of our own.

Recently, the Government Digital Service (GDS), with the support of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) released new guidance on how the public sector should procure digital services. 

The Digital Buying Guide, which is currently in beta, aims to present modern approaches to procurement that are fair, open, transparent, effective, multidisciplinary and focused on meeting user needs. 

We take a look at the new Digital Buying Guide and comment on some of the aspects we find beneficial, and what causes the biggest upheaval to public sector organisations.

HeX comments: “You’ll also see, in the summary of the buying guide below, areas that haven’t been mentioned but we think would make a great addition.”

HeX comments: “Accessibility should be mentioned” 

Whilst the Digital Buying Guide makes reference to ensuring that a project is aimed towards the needs of a user, at HeX, we feel as though this isn’t far enough and that accessibility should be a prominent part of this guide. 

Of course, we have to appreciate it’s in a beta phase, but as accessibility is now a legal requirement for public sector organisations, we thought there’d be a large focus around this. 

This shouldn’t just be mentioned in the planning stages, but right through the process, ensuring that suppliers are able to meet the digital accessibility needs of the public sector. Not only will ensuring that suppliers take inclusion seriously, factoring in accessibility from the very beginning of a digital project will ensure costs are reduced as accessibility won’t have to be retrofitted later in the process. 

It’s easy to assume that public sector organisations will identify accessibility as a user need in the planning stages of the project, but we know that this might not be the case. Many public sector bodies have still not created accessible digital services, despite the deadline of the Public Sector Accessibility Guidelines being back in September 2020. 

We feel as though accessibility should also be factored into the evaluation criteria. Can a supplier who is creating a digital service for you demonstrate their accessibility knowledge to you? Every supplier who knows about accessibility should be able to demonstrate it to a potential client.”

Making change in the public sector

The guide is a great starting point in allowing procurement to be open and transparent in the public sector, despite our concerns regarding the lack of accessibility focus.     

It’s excellent to see the work that has been put into public sector procurement. This isn’t just a helpful guide for the public sector organisations, it’s great for private sector suppliers such as us. It allows us to better prepare for the procurement process, ensuring that we have planned ahead for each stage. 

It’s good to know that procurement is becoming more transparent, both with the public and other suppliers. We’ve been lucky to work with many organisations that have a solid process that looks very similar to these guidelines, and we’re looking forward to working with more organisations that carry out procurement in accordance with these guides. 

Allowing competitive, transparent and open procurement.  

What is the Digital Buying Guide and how does it help procurement?

Before we start breaking down the Digital Buying Guide, we first need to understand the goals of the guide and how it intends to lay out the foundations of a solid procurement process. 

The Digital Buying Guide is a resource for anyone who buys services for the public sector in their country. Be it, local, regional or central Government. 

The Guide brings together standards and best practices from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and guidelines on corruption prevention and gender equality in public procurement. 

The Guide contains steps that procurement teams within public sector organisations can take. This includes procuring services from an approved list of Government suppliers on the Government’s Digital Marketplace Programme

The aim is to ensure that procurement in the public sector is more transparent and focused on the needs of the public. With the public sector becoming increasingly reliant on private companies in the Digital, Data and Technology fields, buying with a social purpose is vital. The Guide aims to help: 

  • Address the public’s expectations for simpler, clearer and digital public services. 
  • Build trust between government and the public 
  • Increase transparency and access to information
  • Reduce social inequality 
  • Contribute to successfully achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

The Guidance on procurement 

Procurement planning stage

The guide’s first point is about adequate planning when it comes to procurement this relates to the following points: 

  • Working as a team
  • Understanding user needs
  • Sharing information early
  • Define outcomes
  • Estimate costs 
  • Use digital buying tools
  • Simplify contracts
  • Choose an approach 

This step relates to the procurement process before a tender has even gone out to prospective suppliers and things that need to be done internally in order to release a successful tender and award it to the right supplier. 

Why working as a team is essential

The first point relates to including skills and experience from across your organisation at each stage of the process. Working as a team within an organisation may lead to conversations that help shape the procurement. As well as leading to better choices in the procurement process. 

Understanding user needs is a vital part of procurement

This is particularly important in that organisations are told to consider what the needs of the user actually are. It’s very easy to procure something that does not meet the user requirements so carrying out user research is an essential part of planning to procure services. 

HeX comments: “Whilst user needs are outlined as an important part in defining an accessible service, there’s no reference to ensuring that users are of a diverse group. Ensuring that consulted users are disabled will help to build a better and more accessible service.  

HeX’ Accessibility Director has created a blog that contains some useful links on how and why user testing is important.

Define outcomes, estimating cost and choosing an approach

Two very important parts of the planning process. Ensuring that you are aware of what outcomes you wish for from this procurement is essential. Being able to determine what the expected costs are, helps to narrow down the bids and choose a supplier that has the organisation’s budgetary requirements in mind. 

Once the outcome and the costs have been defined, an approach needs to be chosen. It’s important to reflect on how best to approach the market and the best type of contract to deliver your outcomes. 

HeX comments: “We think accessibility should be a key part of defining outcomes. Rather than simply relying on outcomes such as “must be WCAG 2.1 compliant”, organisations must understand what this means. An outcome should be less about compliance to a regulation and more about complying to what a user wants. When defining the outcomes of a digital project, take time to investigate what it actually means to be accessible, and why web standards are important. 

It’s vital that it’s not just the supplier who understands this, but everyone involved. This means that suppliers will understand they need to deliver and demonstrate accessible digital services, as it’s written in the requirements.      

A good supplier would help to embed knowledge into the organisation in the form of accessibility training and awareness. Allowing staff members across the organisation to become champions for digital inclusivity. It’s vital that accessibility is carried through an organisation right from the bottom to the very top of the chain. You can view our accessibility training we carried out with public sector suppliers here.”

Use digital buying tools and simplify contracts

It’s encouraged to use digital buying tools such as the Digital Marketplace and other procurement services, this allows a diverse range of businesses to quote. And simplifying contracts will encourage more businesses to quote, a complex contract structure may put off a lot of businesses, and some may be beneficial to hear from!

Informing the market 

Once the planning stage has been completed then it’s time to inform the market of what is being procured. At this stage the guide advises organisations to:  

  • Write requirements
  • Write evaluation criteria 
  • Advertise the opportunity 
  • Answer supplier questions

Writing the requirement and evaluation criteria

As a supplier to a number of public sector organisations this is a very helpful part of the procurement process. For us to know what the requirements of the project are they need to be included in the procurement stage. The guide details that you should include: 

  • Problems you want to solve
  • Any essential competencies the supplier should have 
  • Technical or quality standards to be adhered to
  • The stage of the project currently (if started) 
  • Maximum budget
  • Dates of delivery and contract length
  • How questions can be submitted and when suppliers can expect a reply.

When writing evaluation criteria, it’s equally important to communicate clearly what we (the supplier) are being assessed on. It helps us ensure that the criteria has been met and understand what the end point delivery will look like. This can be assessed via a score-based system for example: 

  • Cost effectiveness – 20 points
  • Technical merit – 15 points 
  • Skills and experience – 5 points
  • Meeting the requirements – 30 points 

HeX comments: “The Digital Buying Guide references the importance of writing requirements. And we believe that suppliers should be assessed on their level of adherence to accessibility. Accessibility shouldn’t be an optional requirement, it should be a mandatory one. In order to understand this, you first need to understand how accessibility is built into a digital service.”

Advertising the opportunity and answering questions

Very simply, advertising the opportunity via the press, online buying tools and even via social media will encourage a diverse range of suppliers to bid. It also helps to ensure: 

  • Transparency 
  • Equal treatment 
  • Competition. 

Importantly, when advertising the opportunity, do not restrict or remove any information unless commercially sensitive or confidential. 

When bidding for a project, it’s commonplace that suppliers will ask questions to public sector organisations to identify any information that may be helpful to know. In the guide, it’s stressed that answering these questions are essential. 

Evaluate and award

When a public sector organisation has informed the market, they must evaluate the bids, and award a supplier. The guide lays out the simple steps: 

  • Shortlist suppliers
  • Evaluate suppliers
  • Award the contract

Shortlisting and evaluating suppliers

Shortlisting is a stage of the bidding process that ensures only the suppliers that meet the minimum requirements get through the evaluation stage. 

For example, a shortlisted supplier will have the relevant skills and experience, they have the technical standards you require, and they have evidence of good financial standing. 

HeX comments: “It’s really important that any supplier that gets awarded with the contract meets the requirements. This also means ensuring that they can meet any accessibility requirements. 

Any decent supplier will be able to demonstrate how they test accessibility and be able to use assistive technology. If a supplier can’t do this, you can’t reasonably expect them to be able to deliver an accessible product at the end.” 

The evaluation stage is about further evaluating the suppliers that have been shortlisted, allowing them to take part in things such as: 

  • Written proposals
  • Presentations
  • Interviews and tests 

It’s essential that the evaluation process is a team-wide exercise, or at least contains stakeholders from a diverse range of teams within the organisation. 

HeX comments: “It’s important to ask questions about accessibility here. Ask a bidding organisation to carry out tests, quiz them on the importance of accessibility. Don’t just rely on the agency to give you information, make sure they know what they are doing before awarding the contract. We’d recommend that you ask for an assistive technology demonstration and for the supplier to explain semantic HTML and the use of ARIA  – a language that engages directly with screen reading technologies.”

Awarding the contract

Very simply, once suppliers have been evaluated, you should inform the successful party that they have won the contract. It’s also courtesy to inform those that are unsuccessful. 

To increase transparency, the public body should publicise the awarding of the contract via their website. This also helps the public know that you are engaging in fair business practices. 

Managing delivery

The next stage is to manage the delivery in accordance with the requirements. 

This essentially ensures that the supplier is meeting the deliverables set out in the initial bid and that they are being communicated with. 

It’s also essential to keep the supplier constantly updated if any changes to the project occur. This allows everyone to plan ahead and ensure it moves forward efficiently. 

HeX comments: “In the delivery of a product or service, accessibility should be of great importance. An accessible supplier should be able to carry out periodic accessibility testing on a digital service. They should be able to demonstrate what they test, inform you of what has been identified, explain how this fails WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1 AA standard and what exactly has been or can be done to rectify the issue. 

As an organisation, you should understand what goes into managing delivery, specifically of an accessible product. In the handover calls, a supplier would be able to demonstrate assistive technology being used effectively on your service. 

Lastly, if it has been planned into the tender, a supplier should be able to support user testing. Automated checks can only pick up on roughly 30% of accessibility issues. The rest must be picked up by manual/user testing. At HeX, we strongly believe a combined approach of automated, technical, manual and user testing should go into an accessible product. Any competent accessibility specialist should agree. 

Throughout the delivery of a project, the needs of the user should be at the very forefront of everyone’s minds. Ensuring this is the case will prevent any accessibility barriers from slipping through the net.” 

HeX comments: “Our final thoughts”

“With accessibility being a huge focus for organisations across the world, it should’ve had pride of place in a procurement guide like the Digital Buying Guide. Of course, we understand that the document is in a beta stage at the moment, however, we’re seeing issues such as corruption and transparency being focused on, above accessibility.

How can a digital product be procured effectively if an organisation does not focus on the user?  Sadly, there are still developers who are claiming to be able to deliver an accessible product when they can’t. If your organisation doesn’t understand how assistive technology interacts with a service, how can they be confident in hiring an agency to deliver on their promises?”