Too often public procurement will favour meaningless form-filling over design flair. How can we stop this, asks Paul Finch
Thinking back over the last 15 years of design reviewing, judging and architect selection makes me realise, among other things, that it doesn’t get any easier. The problem, simply put, is that it is extremely difficult to quantify the qualitative when you are making choices on behalf of others.
This is particularly the case in respect of public procurement programmes, where EU rules complicate rather than simplify. But I take the point made recently, in a discussion on the AJ website, that even if EU rules are junked, we are perfectly capable of making a mess of things all on our own.
Indeed there is something peculiarly British about stifling imagination and flair in favour of the reliably predictable, which can at worst be over-safe and potentially extremely boring. Unfortunately, the ideology of the procurement industry is to mistake quantification for probity. You have to be fair to everybody, even though what you are engaged in is inherently elitist because you are looking for the best.
But the best what? Best at filling in forms showing you have achieved a British Standard in office hygiene? Best at completing mind-numbing forms to get you on to a framework agreement (itself a way of avoiding competition)? Best at writing health-and-safety or equal-opportunity protocols, which will never be examined for their actual effect?
The procurement brigade is obsessed with fee bids, when as a percentage of overall project cost they are infinitesimal
Sadly, too much ‘procurement’ – a word with faintly unpleasant overtones – is concerned with measuring and evaluating almost anything except what really matters. The weasel words used to describe what is being sought are an indication of what a strange world this is. You don’t seek an architect, but ‘architectural services’; if you wanted a chef you would, under this mind-set, ask for an individual to provide ‘catering services’.
The primary question you want answered is: can the architect design really good buildings, or can the chef make great meals? Unless of course it is not the quality of product that is most important.
Too often, in a good example of cognitive dissonance, public clients claim they want first-class design and innovative and/or cutting-edge thinking, but make choices based on anything from whether they have ‘done one of these before’, to the level of their indemnity policy, or the crudest measure of all: the fee bid. The procurement brigade is always obsessed with the latter, when as a percentage of overall project cost it is infinitesimal. They love that system where the lowest fee gets 100 per cent of the available marks and the highest gets zero. It makes life so much simpler, especially for the simple-minded.
After a particularly bad run of competition procurements stories last year, I had an email conversation with Richard Rogers about what might be done to improve things. I recalled good work done for the government by Rab Bennetts years ago on how to make competitions work properly. Musing on a dramatic way to shift the balance of power in favour of design, I suggested that at least 51 per cent of marks in any public procurement process for designers, design teams, design services etc should relate to design quality.
My experience of procurement by developers suggests they are often far more sensible than the public sector. They know that what they are paying for when they hire architects is design brain-power. If you want to select on this basis, look at what the practice has done in the past, and listen to what the architects propose. Score if you have to, but don’t let people who love spreadsheets downplay brilliance, imagination, and the other unmeasurable elements that make life worth living.