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When you want to bring in external design and innovation expertise for the first time, it can be hard to know where to start. There are, however, a number of common issues that you can be aware of, and here Carrie Bishop of digital and design agency FutureGov and Sonja Dahl of Nesta offer their advice and top tips on how to successfully procure for design.

Think about procuring relationships rather than services or specifications

Ultimately, it is successful relationships that will bring about a successful project. Instead of focusing on just the services you need to bring in, think about the relationship you are developing with your design agency. Building trust will enable you to have more open and honest conversations, and this will be really valuable as the work progresses.

Start off small, rather than procure stage by stage

If you are new to design, then commissioning a new project with a creative agency may seem like a daunting task. Unlike some other services, design can span right across key project deliverables. Therefore it is important to be aware of the different phases of a project before you start, and to consider them as a package rather than procuring them one by one.  Although it can feel more comfortable to commission a single piece of user research, for instance, to inform your thinking, the risk is that these insights don’t filter through and are not fully considered in the next phase. To build confidence, why not start with a small project that involves multiple stages of the design process – from user research all the way through to ideation and prototyping – and then move on to a bigger project once you feel more comfortable.

Do your research on the different design agencies out there

Make sure to look at case studies and examples to get a feel for what’s possible and to see what different design agencies are doing, as they’ll all have slightly different expertise focuses. You might also want to bring in some of them for an informal chat, not with a specific brief in mind but just to get a better understanding of their ethos and how that might work for you.

Think about the process of designing

Each designer or agency is likely to have their own approach to working with clients – but there are some common phases. Familiarising yourself with the design process will help you get to grips with the way designers work, and understand how you can frame your project objectives to reflect the stages. Don’t narrow your thinking down too early on, or it may prevent you from seeing the wider challenges.

Create a clear and compelling brief that captures your objectives

A brief is the central place through which to channel your project objectives. There are many good examples of templates you can use, but in the most very basic sense the design brief is where you capture ‘the ‘job to be done’. The design sector uses the brief as the foundation from which they build their ideas so make sure it’s clear and compelling. Designers love a good challenges and get inspired by your problems. Written well, a good design brief can be a springboard for creative thinking.

Focus on outcomes rather than solutions

By its very nature, the design process begins by being very is open and explorative. This means that if your brief is too prescriptive and focused on outputs and solutions that you already have in mind, it can be difficult to make real use of the value of design. Thinking about the outcomes that you want to achieve, rather than exactly how you want to get there, will help you get the most from using a design approach. You might want to use a guide such as the Cabinet Office’s Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework to help you do this.

If you can, give an indication on the budget in your brief

The public sector doesn’t always set a budget when it sends out a brief, and instead waits to see what price ranges come in. But this isn’t always helpful for small suppliers - which many design agencies often are - as bidding takes time and can be tricky if they don’t know what they’re shooting for. Including an indication of the budget helps them to judge whether a project is the right scale for them and makes expectations clear. If you’re unsure of what the services you’re looking to procure actually cost, there’s no harm in having an informal conversation with a few suppliers to get a sense and then decide on the budget.

Be prepared for your brief to be challenged!

If you do create a brief with possible solutions in mind, be ready for the design agencies you approach to challenge you on them. They’ll likely want to take a step back and take a broader look at the issue you’re trying to tackle before getting to the solutions stage, so expect to be asked questions. The same applies if you already have a quite a rigid project plan in place within your brief, as the design process tends to need much more fluidity.

Expect your brief to develop and change

By going through the exploratory phases of the design process (see Section 2 of our guide on Designing for Public Services), you will uncover new needs and requirements, both for yourself and for your users. This means you need to be flexible and open to the fact that the project will change overtime and as you take on new knowledge and insights.