Public AdministrationWritten evidence submitted by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) (PROC 3)

As a trade body with limited experience of Government procurement, the IPA has restricted its response in this paper to Question 1 of those issues raised by the Committee (ie “How successful has the Cabinet Office been at improving public procurement policy and practice?”).

Having said this, our answer in this area will also cover aspects raised in Question 3 (“Does the Government have the right skills and capabilities to procure effectively?”) and Question 6 (“Does the Government collect the management information it needs to understand how public procurement is working?”)

How successful has the Cabinet Office been at improving public procurement policy and practice?

1. Synopsis

1.1 The experience of the UK advertising industry of Government procurement has been poor;

1.2 The design and subsequent process of the most recent Invitation to Tender in which it has been involved, have led to misunderstanding and confusion;

1.3 There was no consultation with the industry on the relevance to advertising of the questions asked—nor their intelligibility—prior to publication, while the resource available to explain and answer queries was limited and lacking in detailed knowledge of the industry;

1.4 The online submission process for applications was slow, confusing, difficult to navigate and unreliable;

1.5 The length and complexity of the non-negotiable Framework Agreement and Call-Off Terms to which our members were required to respond and agree, were daunting, unnecessarily onerous and plainly designed for other sectors;

1.6 The entire process appeared to be governed by the need to follow fixed procedures, leading to a situation where the award of business was more likely to go to those companies able to negotiate the bureaucratic process accurately rather than as a result of a rigorous evaluation of the talent, experience and creative ability of the applicants to develop effective and efficient advertising designed to stimulate social awareness/change (ie the key objectives for the majority of Government advertising activity).

2. Main paper

The IPA welcomes the opportunity to submit views to the Committee on the above.

About the IPA

2.1 The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising is the trade body and professional institute for UK advertising, media and marketing communications agencies. Our c.240 corporate members, who are based throughout the country, handle over 80% of the UK’s advertising agency business with an estimated value of £16.1 billion in 2011 (Source: Advertising Association 2012), on behalf of many tens of thousands of their client companies and organisations.

2.2 Working under the auspices of the old Central Office of Information, our members have been responsible for producing some of the most successful public service advertising in the world—from road safety and anti-smoking to recruitment for the armed services and police.

Our members’ recent experience

2.3 The abolition of the COI has brought a large number of our members into close contact with the Government Procurement Service (GPS) in its running of the following:

2.3.1 Framework Activity RM 988—Creative Solutions, Execution and Related Services (August—December 2012)

2.3.2 Agile Route to Market—Creative Content, Delivery, Execution and Related Services (July—August 2012)

2.4 These pieces of activity were designed to isolate a roster of accredited agencies, which public authority customers could then call on to develop and produce creative work for their own campaigns—following a competitive pitch involving companies from the approved list.

2.5 A second Framework addressing media planning and strategy is planned for January 2013.

How has this worked?

2.6 While individual agencies may be constrained by worries over potential commercial retribution resulting from making negative responses re GPS—as a trade body which buys nothing from anyone, the IPA is free to voice the concerns which it has heard from its members. It is these views, garnered from across its membership that are spelt out below.


2.7 While advertising agencies will gain most of their business as a result of a competitive pitch, little prepared them for the onslaught of electronic paperwork and bureaucracy which accompanied the GPS procurement procedure.

2.8 Although it is admitted that few agency staff had experienced the process whereby agencies were appointed under the old COI, there was universal concern at the length, complexity and intelligibility of the paperwork—and the cumbersome online procedure required both to access this and then to upload responses.

Specific areas of concern broke down as follows:

(a)The design of the Invitation to Tender paperwork was complex and difficult to understand:

2.8.1For advertising agencies, most of which cannot afford specialist departments for Government tenders, the complexity of the system and volume of documentation posed a major challenge. This was compounded by a process whereby queries could only be made via the procurement system’s online “e-sourcing suite”—resulting in generalised (and therefore not particularly helpful) answers published on the GPS website, written by what appeared to be an inexperienced, understaffed (and therefore harassed) department.

2.8.2The ITT was so complex and unclear that many of our members were unable to understand how to answer various questions it asked of suppliers.

2.8.3This was particularly daunting since they were aware that failure to complete the paperwork correctly would result in immediate exclusion from the selection process.

2.8.4It was significant that a number of the IPA’s major member agencies, massively experienced and highly successful in producing Government advertising under the COI, were excluded at the outset of Framework RM 988 for failure to complete the paperwork properly—a cause for rejection which, we were told, under the GPS rules, offers no opportunity for appeal.

2.8.5We would contend that an ITT process which results in such an outcome cannot be what GPS intended—nor can it operate in the best interests of sourcing the best and most effective advertising for Government.

(b)No consultation took place with the advertising industry with regard to the relevance or intelligibility of the questions for procuring advertising:

2.8.6Although the GPS indicated to the IPA that it had consulted with Government departments as to their needs, there was no such discussion with the advertising industry. As a result, many of the questions asked were ill suited, with no consideration given at all to past experience or success in the sector since—as we were informed by the GPS at a meeting on 10th October—these would have been open to “subjective interpretation”.

2.8.7Since the vast majority of agencies applying for Government business will have been able to meet all the basic competency requirements laid down in the ITT—we believe this will have resulted in a situation in which the GPS will have lacked any objective means of discriminating between the respondents in terms of their talent and ability to produce the most effective work for public authority customers.

2.8.8At the aforementioned meeting with the GPS and Cabinet Office , this was illustrated in terms of a singer choosing between two songwriters. One of these, we stated, had had a conspicuous lack of success and the other a lengthy list of hit records. Under the GPS selection procedure—these individuals would only be asked their musical qualifications—which would have been identical—and thus there would have been nothing to discriminate between them.

2.8.9However, the simple addition of a question designed to discover success rates would have avoided this problem.

(c)The online entry process was slow, confusing, difficult to navigate and time-consuming:

2.8.10Many of the IPA’s member agencies will design and build websites commercially and they are therefore extremely aware of what is possible in this area.

2.8.11Feedback to an IPA questionnaire on the GPS online process was highly critical of its web design, including its slow operation, its complex layout and its tendency to crash—requiring applicants to retype their entire entries.

2.8.12These (and other) observations have already been passed through to the Cabinet Office.

(d)The length and complexity of the Framework Agreement and Call-Off Terms were daunting and unnecessarily onerous:

2.8.13Agencies applying for consideration for Framework RM 988 were confronted with 11 documents, including two non-negotiable contracts of approximately 100 pages each.

2.8.14Research carried out by the IPA amongst its members revealed that each of the agencies which engaged in this process took an average of 167 hours to read and complete their applications, which at a charge-out rate of £300 an hour (ie the average rate which senior staff would normally be charged to their clients) meant that the average agency spent over £50,000 just to become involved in the procedure.

2.8.15Given that we were informed by the Cabinet Office that over 400 applications were received for Framework RM 988, and assuming the same levels of diligence and expenditure, this would have meant the UK ad industry spent in man-hours in the region of £20 million to compete for this activity.

2.8.16While recognising the need for the Government to make its business open to all, we believe this to be enormously wasteful—and this is not even allowing for the time spent by the procurement service processing all these applications.

2.8.17Moreover, drilling down into the paperwork, the IPA discovered a number of errors within the lengthy and massively demanding contract documents which agencies were required to accept in their entirety as a precondition for consideration. This, in addition to the absurdly onerous nature of those documents, neither of which bore any resemblance to a typical advertising services contract.

2.8.18While we would accept that taxpayers’ money needs to be protected, we would contend that it is also the Government’s responsibility to be fair in its dealings with its suppliers—and that the demands placed by the above were self-evidently not so.

(e)The entire process appeared driven by the requirement for a standard approach rather than to the achievement of an objective evaluation of the talent, experience or creative ability of the applicants:

2.8.19While it is recognised that the GPS will have set procedures designed to ensure transparency and fairness, this appears to have been translated into the rigid application of common paperwork to every business sector, regardless of its relevance or suitability.

3. Conclusions

3.1 We have no doubt that the staff of the GPS are dedicated and professional public servants.

3.2 However, we also believe they are understaffed and hide-bound by regulation which, while designed to be open and minimise the risk of corruption, results in enormous bureaucracy, misunderstanding and waste.

3.3 Our experience has been limited to the advertising/communications area, however, we would surmise that application of the standard, undeviating procedures which we have encountered would have a similar outcome across most of the sectors in which the GPS is involved.

December 2012

Prepared 18th July 2013