The Secrets to Selling to Central Government
With Central Gov being the biggest spenders on G-Cloud, we asked our Strategic Adviser Bill Mew to give us some insight into how suppliers can get selling to them!
Know your buyer
Central government departments may appear like dauntingly sized bureaucracies, but it is critical to remember that you are not just selling to a large entity; you are still selling to a group of individuals – and that every opportunity is attached to a person and every person is influenced by a set of immediate peers and colleagues.
A real understanding of the environment into which you are selling is essential – at a governmental level, a departmental one and also on a project one as well.
The governmental dimension:
The government has committed to spending £1 in £3 with SMEs by 2022 and involving more SMEs in projects. According to the 2017-2020 Transformation Strategy, the Government is aiming to move away from large monolithic contracts towards smaller off-the-shelf solutions, It wants to make better use of data by linking datasets and publishing more APIs, deliver joined up end-to-end solutions built upon reusable components, and improve the digital skills and capabilities of the civil service.
One of the main ways that the government hopes to achieve its SME spending target by 2020, is through the increased use of government frameworks like G-Cloud and DOS (explained later) which are one of the main ways that central government department procure software and services and also one of the ways in which many SMEs have enjoyed real success in supply to the public sector.
The departmental dimension:
You need to avoid selling a generic proposition, as each department has very strong culture and passionate way of doing things its own way – one that more than likely will be different from the way that other departments do it.
As a supplier, you need to understand your target departments as well as or better than the people who work in them in order to be accepted and to be credible. You have to understand the structure of the sector and the links between central groups like GDS and the technical teams in each individual department, know something of their history and be able to speak the right language.
The Government Digital Service was formed by the coalition government in 2011 and was one of the driving forces behind an initial wave of digital transformation across government. A unit of the Cabinet Office tasked with transforming the provision of online public services and implementing ‘Digital by Default’, GDS enjoyed strong ministerial support from Francis Maude (now Baron Maude of Horsham), and was credited with enabling the UK to achieve the top rank in the UN’s 2016 e-Government rankings.
More recently critics from within and outside Whitehall have argued that GDS had gotten too big, misguided and lost what made it special in the early days – with reports of conflict between GDS and various departments. With responsibility for much of the government’s digital strategy now moved to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), a parliamentary review into the work of GDS was announced in July 2018 by the Science and Technology Select Committee. Nevertheless, GDS still has a role to play, largely in terms of providing the standards and frameworks, and leading the way with Government as a Platform “a common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services”. This includes GOV.UK Verify, Pay and Notify.
With each major department having a different way of operating, you need to listen carefully, and seek to gain an understanding of the department’s culture as well as its challenges and ambitions. Then you need to understand who does what, and where the decision makers and key influencers are. A great place to start is by reading each department’s blog [see the table below that lists links to key blogs and strategy documents at many of the major government departments].
Central government is very complex and it is not surprising that each department has it’s own strategies and resource you should pay close attention to. There is no single source for resources, key blogs and strategy documents for all the major government departments. What you should particularly focus on depends on what your target market is – which department you are aiming to sell to.
|Major Government Departments||Overview||Links and Blogs|
|DCMS||DCMS has inherited responsibility for the digital economy from GDS.||UK Digital Strategy|
|MoD||The armed forces and national security agencies have higher security standards, their own network (RLI - Restricted LAN Interconnect) and own procurement.||Defence information strategy Procurement at MOD|
|NHS||The NHS is complex and fragmented, with lots of buyers and many different buying characteristics. Its digital strategy is coordinated by NHS Digital.||NHS Digital (strategy)
Our meet the sector guide for Health
|DEFRA||DEFRA will be one of the departments most heavily impacted by Brexit.||Transforming Defra with data|
|DWP||DWP has one of the largest budgets and also one of the largest IT projects – Universal Credit.||DWP Digital Strategy|
|MoJ||The MoJ is also very fragmented, covering the courts, prisons and regional police forces as well as many other bodies.||The Product Management Handbook for Government - MOJ Digital & Technology Police ICT|
|HMRC||HMRC is one of the largest buyers of digital services, and is moving rapidly to Real Time Information (RTI) for PAYE and other services.||HMRC Digital Strategy|
|Home Office||The Home Office is another large department that will be impacted by Brexit.||Home Office Digital, Data and Technology|
|DfE||DfE is another fragmented department covering schools colleges and universities.||DfE Digital and Transformation|
|BEIS||BEIS faces the challenge of supporting trade post-Brexit.||BEIS digital data and technology (DDaT) strategy|
|Others||You can find blogs for most departments, but a good starting point is GDS.||Government Digital Service|
At a project level:
You also need to know the individual people you’re hoping to sell to — the budget holders, the influencers and the decision makers on the project itself. Invariably the team will have been inundated by other suppliers and competitors of yours – most of which will have gone for a hard-selling approach. If you can avoid the hard sell yourself and focus on the goals of the project and how best to directly address these, you will be a step ahead.
Some of this research can be done online – following a department’s social media identities will give you an idea of what is important to them. Don’t expect these departments to follow you back – they don’t do this as a rule. Dig a little deeper and you will find the social identities for many of the key individuals within each department. Start with those that mention the department and its initiatives most, mention in their profile that they work for the department and are also followed or retweeted by others in the department.
More and more of the decision makers and key influencers across Whitehall are now active on social media. Engaging with these individuals, replying to and sharing their content, will get you noticed. Social media makes finding and striking up relationships with the right people a bit easier than it used to be, but there’s no substitute for meeting in real life. So, add a focused program of networking through events, conferences and other opportunities and you will soon start developing important relationships within your target departments. Departments also advertise ‘meet the buyer’ events on Contracts Finder as well as on their department pages on GOV.UK.
One forum in which many of the most progressive thinkers and most important influencers gather to focus on big ideas is the annual UKGovCamp sessions and their many supported events – these unconferences should not been seen as selling opportunities, but opportunities for suppliers (as participants or sponsors) to get a feel for the issues and trends across various government departments. As well as a relationship developing opportunity, these and other interactive sessions are a chance to discuss really important issues directly with many of the most active individuals within these government departments. And even if you miss these events, they publish a Twitter list with the IDs of all the participants.
Do your research
GDS Govtech funds
Start by searching for recent announcements of GDS Govtech funds – these are specifically for private sector innovators that can tackle public sector problems. We have seen an initial £20 million in funding for a project that to help address the Home Office’s ‘Daesh’ challenge. Other such challenges will be opened over time setting out problems for tech companies to solve, and SMEs can pitch and propose solutions. Again, you still need to seek out guidance on these challenges from the right people within your target customer – contacts that can help you understand how to access funding and finance.
Your next step needs to be understanding what the government has purchased in the past and what it is likely to need in the future. For an idea of what government departments have purchased previously you can review notices for past opportunities and awards on Contracts Finder. If there are past opportunities on Contracts Finder that are a similar match not only to your capabilities and experience, but are also of a similar contract size to what you tend to offer, then there is a chance that you could be able to sell direct to government for future such opportunities.
Contracts Finder is the Government’s single online portal where contracts valued above £10,000 in central government and above £25,000 in local government are listed. It’s free to register and search opportunities on Contracts Finder. You can search for present or past tenders by geographical area or contract type. This will give you valuable insight into the market you are about to enter as well as the competition.
If, however, the past opportunities that you find on Contracts Finder are larger or more complex than you would be able to deliver on your own, then find out which larger suppliers were awarded these deals and contact them to see if there are opportunities to work with these larger suppliers as a partner or contractor. Many larger suppliers now use Contracts Finder to advertise upcoming opportunities for smaller businesses to work with them on government contracts.
Another key approach is to join one of the government’s many procurement ‘frameworks. These frameworks can be confusing, and it is important to find ones that are specific to the goods and services that you offer. Details of current frameworks and how to access current opportunities is available from Crown Commercial Services. We would recommend that you start by focusing Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) and G-Cloud (which is currently in its 10th iteration and will soon be on its 11th). You need to understand how these frameworks work and how best to list your products and services.
Focus on Solving Their Problems
Once you have developed an understanding of the department’s culture as well as its needs, you need to focus on meeting these needs. All too often suppliers see each of the frameworks as a sellers’ market, listing their products and services, focusing on their own capabilities and expecting buyers to understand how these will solve their problems and hoping that they will then line up to buy them. In actual fact the frameworks are buyers’ markets. Buyers are focused on solving their problems rather than seeking to understand your products and services or understand how they might help. Indeed, buyers tend to have done most of their research well before turning to one of the frameworks. They have a good understanding of what their problem is and a pretty good idea of what the likely solution is – they may even have a solution and/or supplier in mind. If you have not already engaged with them and given them an understanding of how you can play a role in solving their problems, you are unlikely to get a look in.
In all of this you need to think long-term. Building relationships and understanding is a long-term investment (the only short-cuts being hiring staff that already have contacts and knowledge, and working with the specialist advisors that know the market and understand the frameworks). There is often a long sales-cycle, and developing skills and creating propositions that are tailored for the exact needs of your target departments will take time and investment on your part, with ROI only being realised in the medium to long term. Getting the right advice can accelerate your time to market, can enable you to increase your bid win ratio and can also shorten your time to achieve ROI.