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An Experiment in Innovative Procurement for Design Services in Government

As part of our EIR project, we selected three grantees to help us test design thinking's utility as a creative problem solving approach for organizations providing social services.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo, Keyon Smith, and Stan Koutstaal are from the Administration for Children and Families' Office of Family Assistance. Their project, Building a Design-Minded and More Collaborative OFA, was selected as part of the second round of the HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In order to foster family economic security across the country, our office funds social services agencies through a number of grant programs. As part of our EIR project, we selected three grantees to help us test design thinking's utility as a creative problem solving approach for organizations providing social services. At its heart, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving. It consists of a set of tools that focus on empathy for the end-user (or the client in our world) in the creation and consideration of any solution. We introduced the grantees to design thinking, and they learned design thinking by using it to solve a challenge of their choice (more on that in a future post). As we finished our pilots, we realized that using design thinking as a problem solving approach really resonated with our pilot projects. In fact, each of the grantees has already begun utilizing the methodology to address other challenges that they face. We really thought long and hard about the best way to disseminate our grantees' experience and lessons learned. Ultimately, we decided that a brief, engaging publication made sense because it would fill a gap in the literature about design thinking. Plenty of examples exist about how private sector companies all over the world use design thinking to innovate and create customer-centered products and services. Quite a bit of information exists about its applicability in the developing world as well; however, little information exists on how it has and can be utilized in the public and social sectors within the United States. We hope this publication will be part of a growing body of work on this subject. After deciding on a publication, we determined that ours had to be different from the traditional papers that the government puts out. It needed to be highly engaging and visual. It should illustrate the concepts that were discussed. Frankly, it needed to be well-designed because, heck, we were talking about the concept of design in the publication. But that in and of itself presented a problem: we did not have any graphic designers in-house or through an existing contract. We considered competing a contract for design services, but realized that would take a lot of time, effort and money. We knew that we wanted to explore a different approach to procuring design services, and that's when we learned about a website that acts as a marketplace for crowdsourcing design services called 99designs. We reached out to Mark Naggar and the HHS Buyers Club team to see if making this type of purchase made sense. Much to our delight, they supported it, and we got buy-in from our budget office. As a result, we decided to launch our design contest. 99designs is a marketplace for crowdsourcing design services. Through a design contest on the site, you describe what you need, and how much you are willing to pay. Then, dozens of designers submit design options over the course of seven days. For us, 99designs appeared to be a fast and affordable option for receiving quality design services. It also appeared to meet many of the benefits discussed in a White House Report on innovative contracting opportunities:

  1. Pay only for success - Working with this web-based marketplace is different from engaging in a binding contract. This means that if we do not like any of the designs that are submitted, we do not have to go with any of them. We can cancel the competition and not lose any money. We are also able to provide feedback on the designs over the course of the contest for no extra charge. These opportunities reduce the risk of the government paying for services that do not meet its needs or standards of quality.
  2. Reach beyond the usual suspects - Normal contracting procedures value prior experience in working with the government. This type of platform enables the government to work with individuals and companies that have the technical expertise to provide quality deliverables, but may have never had the chance.
  3. Increase cost-effectiveness - This approach is efficient, consisting of 7 days or less from design contest initiation to design selection, reducing federal staff's level of effort to achieve a quality deliverable. The cost of doing business on this type of platform is much lower than traditional procurement practices of this type as well. We are able to accomplish a transaction that normally costs around $5,000 or more for less than $3,000.

We are waiting to see if the experience will meet our expectations, and look forward to sharing what we have learned. In the meantime, we encourage you to check out and/or share our design contest here.

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