The Chest is the e-portal for procurement used by Manchester City Council and other councils in Greater Manchester. As councils continue the move from grants to contracts The Chest will become the main focus for communication between the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) and council officers once the tender process begins. VCS organisations will have to register their interest in particular opportunities, download the documents they require, ask questions through the site and receive answers, and then upload their completed applications and associated documents.
One of the first things I did when I started my job as Strategic Lead for Commissioning was to look at and sign up for The Chest. I’ve used it frequently since then but I remember my first impression and my first attempts to use it. I was not impressed. And even though I use it relatively often compared to most VCS organisations (some may only use it once every 2 years or more) I still can’t find my way around it and end up contacting the help line.
In an effort to improve the site I decided to email the company that runs The Chest to ask how I could influence the future development of the site. I’d come up with a few suggestions and I wanted to talk to someone about what would make it easier for VCS groups. There are lots of pretty basic usability problems with the site: menus are confusing; navigation is slow and cumbersome; there’s no context-sensitive help; it looks like a website from 10 years ago; it assumes that all organisations using it are already familiar with procurement jargon; the opportunities for personalisation are basic; and all its opportunities are coded against EU Common Procurement Vocabulary (CPV) codes (there are currently over 9450 CPV codes just in the main vocabulary). Suffice to say it is not a joy to use and is, at the least, off-putting for any new user.
My offer of help was not embraced. The reply I received was:“you should raise your suggestions through the support email address where they will be forwarded to the appropriate persons within the appropriate organisation.The user forum is restricted to our client base, and suggestions as to modifications have to approved by them, as they basically foot the bill for the development cost and as such they have to consider the relevance and importance of each element that is added or change made to the system.Suggestions made by suppliers are forwarded by ourselves to the user group for consideration if they are deemed appropriate and possible.”
Let’s be clear here because I was a little confused to begin with. The “user group” that they mention does not consist of organisations who use the portal to look for opportunities, it is made up of the public authorities who purchase the website. It seems that the only way that I can make a suggestion for improvement is to send an email, which will then be filtered by the company running the website (an obvious conflict of interest) which will then go to a user group which doesn’t include any providers, the “end-users”.
I then asked for a list of the participants in the users group as it seemed it would be most effective to talk to one of them directly. The company couldn’t provide that information as it is commercially sensitive, though they didn’t specify why. That was the last I heard from them despite a couple of follow-up emails. Just like their website they didn’t seem all that user friendly. I was trying to be helpful and even offered to convene a group of VCS organisations to suggest improvements but they weren’t interested. After all, they are not providing a service to the VCS or other providers, they are providing a service to the public authorities who purchase the website.
This is not the first time that Macc has suggested improvements in The Chest. Several years ago we discussed with Manchester City Council what might be done to improve its usability and didn’t make progress. The issues remain the same.
One of the declared aims of the government is to open up procurement to small and medium sized organisations, which include the VCS. E-portals are one of the key communication mechanisms. The issue is not just how easy they are to use, it is also about look and feel – “the medium is the message”. Procurement is a serious business and public authorities need to be equally serious about how they communicate, as this is the basis of any successful contracting relationship. The aim is to build a trusting and professional relationship with future contract holders and this should be reflected in every stage of the commissioning process, including e-portals.