×

Tag: Commercials

Do Civil Servants dream of woolly sheep?

The frustration of job descriptions and their lack of clarity.

One of the biggest and most regularly occurring complaints about the Civil Service (and public sector as a whole) is their miss-management of commercial contracts.

There are regularly headlines in the papers accusing Government Departments & the Civil Servants working in them of wasting public money, and there has been a drive over the last few years especially to improve commercial experience especially within the Senior Civil Service.

When a few years ago my mentor at the time suggested leaving the public sector for a short while to gain some more commercial experience before going for any Director level roles, this seemed like a very smart idea. I would obviously need to provide evidence of my commercial experience to get any further promotions, and surely managing a couple of 500K, 1M contracts would not be enough, right?

Recently I’ve been working with my new mentor, focusing specially on gaining more commercial knowledge etc. and last month he set me an exercise to look at some Director and above roles within the Digital and Transformation arena to see what level of commercial experience they were asking for, so that I can measure my current levels of experience against what is being asked for.

You can therefor imagine my surprise when this month we got together to compare 4 senior level roles (2 at Director level and 2 Director General) and found that the amount of commercial experience requested in the job descriptions was decidedly woolly.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, the Civil Service is famous for its woolly language, policy and strategy documents are rarely written in simple English after all.

But rather than job specifications with specific language asking for “experience of managing multiple multi million pound contracts successfully etc”. What is instead called for (if mentioned specially at all) is “commercial acumen” or “a commercial mindset” but no real definition of what level of acumen or experience is needed.

The Digital Infrastructure Director role at DCMS does mention commercial knowledge as part of the person specification, which it defines as “a commercial mindset, with experience in complex programmes and market facing delivery.

And this one from MoD, for an Executive Director Service Delivery and Operations, calls for “Excellent commercial acumen with the ability to navigate complex governance arrangements in a highly scrutinised and regulated environment”

Finally we have the recently published Government CDO role, which clearly mentions commercial responsibilities in the role description, but doesn’t actually demand any commercial experience in the person specification.

At which point, my question is, what level of Commercial acumen or experience do you actually want? What is a commercial mindset and how do you know if you have it? Why are we being so woolly at defining what is a fundamentally critical part of these roles?

How much is enough?

Recent DoS framework opportunities we have bid for or considered at Difrent have required suppliers to have have experience of things like “a minimum of 2 two million pound plus level contracts” (as an example) to be able to bid for them.

That’s helpful, as Delivery Director I know exactly how many multimillion pound contracts we’ve delivered successfully and can immediately decide whether as a company it’s worth us putting time or effort into the bid submissions. But as a person, I don’t have the same level of information needed to make a similar decision on a personal level.

The flip side of the argument is that data suggests that women especially won’t apply for roles that are “too specific” or have a long shopping list of demands, because women feel like they need to meet 75% of the person specification to apply. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but there’s a big difference between being far too specific and listing 12+ essential criteria for a role, and being soo unspecific you’ve become decidedly generic.

Especially when, as multiple studies have shown, in the public digital sector Job titles are often meaningless. Very rarely in the public sector does a job actually do what it says on the tin. What a Service Manager is in one Department can be very different in another one.

If I’m applying for an Infrastructure role I would expect the person specification to ask for Infrastructure experience. If I’m applying for a comms role, I expect to be asked for some level of comms experience; and I would expect some hint as too how much experience is enough.

So why when we are looking at Senior/ Director level roles in the Civil Service are we not helping candidates understand what level of commercial experience is ‘enough’? The private sector job adverts for similar level roles tend to be much more specific in terms of the amount of contract level experience/ knowledge needed, so why is the public sector being so woolly in our language?

Woolly enough for you?

*If you don’t get the blog title, I’m sorry, it is very geeky. and a terrible Philip K. Dick reference. But it amused me.

The art of Transferring Knowledge

One of the most common questions that comes up in Bid opportunities is usually some variant of “how do you transfer your knowledge to us before you leave?”

This is completely valid question, and really important to both ask, and to understand, but also hard to answer well in 100 words without risking looking like knowledge transfer is only a nice to have!

Having been on the other side of the commercial table, making sure you get a supplier who will want to work with you and up-skill your own people so you are not reliant on the supplier forever is generally vital to both making sure the project is successful, and cost effective.

Developers comparing code together

I’ve written Invitations to Tender that ask for examples of how suppliers would go about transferring knowledge and up-skilling my teams. I’ve sat through bid tender presentations as the buyer and listened to suppliers try to persuade me that they know best, and that they have the expertise my organisation needs to deliver a project or programme.

I was generally able to spot very quickly those organisations that took this more seriously than others, those that would work collaboratively with us vs. those more likely to just come in and do a sales job and leave us none the wiser reliant on their services.

But, if I’m honest, I never really judged that feel on the words they said, but more through the words they didn’t say, and more importantly HOW they said or didn’t say it.

Everyone can say the words ‘show and tell’, but how are you doing them? How are you getting stakeholders engaged? How are you making sure you have the right people turning up to engage with the project?

A person standing in front of a whiteboard moving a post it note in a team meeting

You can say you use Trello, JIRA, or Confluence etc. to create shared digital spaces to run your backlogs or share information; but how do you make sure the right people have access to them and know how to use them? How do you agree what information is going on there and when? How do you determine what information the team can see vs. your stakeholders, and make sure the information is understandable to everyone who needs it?

As long as suppliers are putting in key buzzwords, that nuance is hard to judge within 100 words, but so key to understand. And it’s not only important for the buying organisation to understand how the supplier would transfer knowledge, but it’s actually really important for the supplier to understand how receptive an organisation is as well.

I always assumed ‘knowledge transfer’ was something that was easy for suppliers to do as long as they put in some effort.

Now I sit on the other side of the table, its something i’ve realised there is a real art too. Not just writing a bid response that gets the message across, but doing it once you hit the ground. I’d always assumed that, as long as the team/ buying organisation was keen and engaged, knowledge transfer would be easy to do.

Two people talking in front of a white board that shows flow charts and prototypes.

Eight months later I’ve realised it’s not as easy as it looks, as a supplier there’s a very fine line to walk between supporting an organisation, and looking patronising. Just as every organisation is somewhere different on their agile/digital journey, so is every individual.

A one size fits all approach to transferring knowledge will never work. You can’t assume because an organisation is new to agile or digital, every individual within the organisation is. Some organisations/people want more in the way of ‘coaching and mentoring’ others want less. Some organisations/people will say they are open to changing their ways of working, but will resist anything new; others are champing off your hand for every new tool or technique. Some want walking through everything you are doing so they can learn from it, others want you to just get on and deliver and tell them at the end how you did it.

And as suppliers, there is often as much we have to learn from the organisation as there is to ‘teach’, while we might be the experts in agile or digital or delivering transformation; we need to learn about and understand how their organisation works and why.

Two people having a conversation

There is no ‘one answer’ on how to do knowledge transfer, and it’s not a one way street. It’s how you approach the question that is important. Are you open to working with an organisation (either as the buyer or the supplier) to understand how you can work together and learn from each other? As long as you are open to having those conversations and learning from each other, then the knowledge transfer will happen.

Thoughts from the other side

No, don’t worry, I’ve not passed on and started speaking from beyond the grave; but given I’m now 3 months into my role at Difrent I thought it might be worth reflecting on how I’ve found things on the other side of the commercial table so to speak.

In the first 3 months I’ve worked with our teams, been in multiple contract meetings, client meetings, negotiations, done my first ever bid presentation and helped win my first piece of work for the organisation.

@Rachel0404 and I looking at a rich pic for NHS Jobs

In the 15 years I spent in the public sector I have done my fair share of time working alongside procurement, drafting Pre-Qualification Questionnaires and Invitation to Tenders as part of a commercial team, or assessing bid responses and pitch’s as a programme lead. But if I’m honest in all that time I never considered the work that suppliers put into their Tender responses; the effort different commercial frameworks might require nor how companies pick and choose which work to bid for.

It’s been fascinating within the Difrent SLT talking about the kind of work we want to be bidding for, assessing what work aligned with our #TechForGood goals and values. It’s also really been reassuring to be involved in conversations where we have decided not to bid on work that doesn’t align with the company values.

‘Do something great’

One of the things I’ve quickly had to get my head around is the complexities of the Digital Marketplace and the ins and outs of the different commercial frameworks, be that G-Cloud, DoS or PSR. If I’m honest I’d never really got my head around the pros and cons of the different frameworks before taking this role, it was always one of those things I simply had to approve before.

While I have previously managed projects and programmes, and managed the suppliers working with us to deliver the work; it was equally never a thing I massively had to dwell on, beyond the question of ‘are they delivering what we need or not?’

In the last three months I’ve really gotten to understand the amount of work that has to be put in to make sure they answer to that question is ‘yes’.

Graphiti saying ‘yes’!

One of the trickiest aspects to that relationship is making sure as a partner we are providing the right amount of rigour, challenge and reassurance so that our clients feel assured that we are doing the right things in the right way to deliver the outcomes they are looking for. Balancing the need to challenge and ask why to ensure the work we are doing is right, with the need to keep the client happy, engaged and onside. Not the easiest thing to do, but definitely vitally important in order to ensure value is actually delivered.

As a supplier I now realise how tricky it is to walk the tightrope of helping the client deliver the right thing, when this might mean a scope change that means more time or people (ie. more money) vs. wanting to ensure you deliver on time and within budget.

As a Product Person, I have always spoken about the importance of prioritisation and focusing on the problem the organisation was trying to solve. I used to find it incredibly frustration trying to get suppliers to understand and deliver what we needed, not just doing the work, but helping us do the work right. I was involved in multiple conversations across government about good suppliers vs. bad. Those that actually challenged us to do the right thing, and those that just delivered ‘what it said on the tin’ without helping check the label on the tin was right.

Now working on the other side of the table, I am doubly as determined to make sure we are delivering both the challenge and the outcomes our clients are looking for, to help deliver truly meaningful products and services and add real value to our clients and their users.

A mug bearing the message ‘What good shall I do this day?’