We need to change how we design and choose service providers

After working across the donor, private and NGO sectors for over 15 years and being heavily involved in how procurement is designed, here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • Often communities are involved in very quick design processes (as procurement is running late) through rapid needs assessments and selective focus groups.
  • Evaluations of previous funding cycles play a critical role – evaluation teams are often made up of seasoned professionals – who may bring their own biases. Fresh ideas and diverse teams are often missing from the design process.
  • I’ve been privileged to coordinate procurement processes which involve the host government collaborating with the funders. Communities and users often have no say in which agency provides their services – they have little-no purchasing power. Perhaps I am wrong?
  • The procurement is competitive in some cases. Detailed Request for Proposals. Some agencies are funded without any procurement process at all. Often agencies feel like they are all competing for the same pot of money – so they end up providing the same kinds of services. Health agencies start providing wider services like education; education agencies start providing health services – so differentiation becomes difficult and specialisations diminish.  
  • This private sector approach tendering is mismatched with the nature of the work. The market has become narrow and focused – stifling creativity and innovation.
  • The power is with those agencies who write proposals well and can pass due diligence – so local/grass roots agencies often do not lead big projects.

We need to shake the tree – or at least start talking underneath it.

  1. For new ideas treat them like IPOs

If we’re looking for a more competitive and private sector-like approach – why not treat it much more like start-up capital. Imagine if traditional donors invest like hedge funds, buying up part of a project and having only a partial vote. Treat new ideas like Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) – so they can scale up quickly.

  1. Extensively involve the host community, users and host government in the procurement

Give community users and host governments more purchasing power. People have said to me in the past they will have bias. ‘But they will hire their relative’ said one person (honestly). Do we do any different right now? Don’t we give funding to agencies from the ‘in group’ anyway? Everyone has bias.

  1. Design with a risk appetite

Know that some of the project has risk attached to it – design procurement with an element of new ideas that may fail. Be ok with that failure as a learning process. Was Apple always this successful?  No. Did James Dyson have overnight success?  No.

  1. Change who you are asking to write business cases

When business cases are written – have a truly diverse team designing the project and procurement. Remember we all carry some bias and preconceptions.

  1. Assess agencies values not just value for money

Stop thinking about just value for money. It clouds judgement. Start evaluating the agencies’ culture, values and diversity – and if they practice what they preach.

What can you do today to change how we serve communities?

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