How to make procurement docs people understand

Big companies have whole teams to pore over longwinded contracts but that’s unfair to smaller, talented players, writes Amy McNichol and Harry Webb

1 June 2022

Paper weight … CDPS wants to cut procurement docs down to size to aid small players

In the digital economy part of the Digital Strategy for Wales, the Welsh Government says it wants to create:

procurement practices and policies [that] support innovation and economic prosperity, allowing businesses in Wales to thrive and support [the] public sector in working with a responsive market of companies

CDPS wants to set an example in this vein. To create healthy competition among a more diverse pool of providers, we’ve started to rethink the design of the documents we use to procure goods and services.

Users of these procurement documents are:

Diverse pool of providers

We know that many providers of public sector goods and services are large companies with lots of experience in applying for – and winning – procurement contracts. Some providers have individuals, or even teams, dedicated to reading lengthy contracts so the company can feel confident in signing them.

But for smaller, less-experienced providers, legally binding themselves to verbose documents they’re not certain they understand can understandably be anxiety-inducing.

CDPS has approached our overhaul of procurement content with these small and medium enterprises in mind.

Here are some of the common barriers standing in the way of these smaller players providing goods or services to CDPS.

1. Too much or too little information

Procurement can take a long time. From the first written contact providers get from CDPS, to signing an agreement, months have often passed. This makes giving providers the right information at the right time essential, so they don’t have to remember it from a document they read months earlier.

We found that, often, documents weren’t giving the appropriate amount of detail, which risked one of 2 things happening:

Improvement: Working within legal boundaries, we’ve started to create layers of content so that we first give users relevant, top-level information. We include an external link or a nudge towards more comprehensive information for people who need it.

2. Order of process unclear

CDPS shares around 8 to 12 documents with a provider over the duration of a procurement. Sometimes, we need to send a bundle of related things at the same time as email attachments.

Improvement: We’re conscious that the volume could be overwhelming so we’re aiming to:

3. Long-winded, complex sentences and inconsistencies block understanding

Legal documents are often a mishmash of other documents that have been combined over time. That’s partly why they can be so long and repetitive.

A buying organisation might have started by using a standard contract and later realised that it’s missing clause X. The organisation will add clause X in (often just lifting and shifting it from a contract from another organisation) but clause X might not use the same words, style or ‘terms’ that the rest of the standard contract uses – a recipe for confusion.

Improvement: We’re starting to translate legal language into plain language to open it up to providers without much legal knowledge.

We’ve also reduced inconsistencies. For example, some documents refer to ‘providers’, some call them ‘suppliers’, some say ‘bidders’, others use ‘tenderers’. The 4 words seem to have been used interchangeably at any point in CDPS procurement. We’ve defined each to avoid confusion.

Now we wait to hear from users…

We hope to start using the templates and documents we’ve been working on within the next few months, which will help us to find out where we need to improve. We’ve built in opportunities for providers to feed back to us so we can see where things might still be confusing or inconsistent.

We’re also keen to work with our other set of users: CDPS colleagues who run each procurement. We’ve added guidance into some of the templates they add information to before they share them with providers. We’ll be interested to see if that guidance is enough.

Amy McNichol is a content designer working for CDPS

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