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What makes a great council-supplier relationship?

By Neil Lawrence
2023-12-18 14:28:54
Neil blog 2 - 3

At the regional LocalGovCamp events we attended in 2023 we used the opportunity to discuss how councils and suppliers could work together to identify the pain points that both sides experience. Running a series of workshops at the four venues on this theme allowed us to use the insights from those attending.


Here’s Gavin Beckett outlining the idea:The Good, the Bad and the Hard  3 copy

“I spent over 20 years working in Local Government, and for a lot of those years I was leading procurement processes, assessing bids and working closely with suppliers to deliver projects. It’s fair to say that I had my fair share of frustrations with the way a lot of them behaved at all stages of the process. 

I also tried hard to shift my Council away from some of the old school traditional approaches to procurement and working with suppliers, like introducing the use of G-Cloud and agile contracting - and when I joined Placecube, we shaped our values and the way we try to work with councils around the things that I felt councils care about, so that we would be an example of the kind of supplier I wanted to buy from. 

But we really wanted to understand what other people in local government think and feel about suppliers - what they want to see from them, how they wish they would act, and how they think the market could be influenced by doing things differently themselves. 

We wanted to find out if we are right that councils are looking for a different kind of supplier”


How we ran the workshop

The workshop ran in two parts:

  • An ice-breaker to get everyone thinking and talking to each other
  • An exercise to draw out the key actions and behaviours needed on both sides


Workshop participants were asked to select an image from one of the many we had laid out as a way to start a conversation about the supplier/customer relationship. We encouraged them to not think too hard about what they chose -  just to pick the first one that caught their attention and talk to it. 

In groups on tables they then explained to each other what the image meant to them in terms of the supplier/council relationship. We picked out a few of these individual contributions to feed back to other tables  to help share the learning.

Key actions and behaviours

The main part of the workshop was to get participants to talk about their experiences as either customers or suppliers. We asked them to individually capture their thoughts about:

  • what councils needed to do differently to improve relationships
  • what suppliers should do more of to improve relationships


Photo by Tom Styles 

To encourage things along  we offered participants generating multiple contributions the opportunity to select a behaviour or practice that would be banished forever (well, within our power at least) to ‘Room 101’


What we learned

Our expectation was that the responses would be dominated by councils highlighting how suppliers needed to improve. While there was plenty of feedback on that, it was well balanced  with a good deal of self-reflection on their part and insight into ways they could improve their own organisations. 

Suppliers seemed to feel comfortable enough to raise issues about where council actions or behaviours created some challenges, as this discussion was not specific to a particular contract but more generic in nature (as well as being a safe space).

We also had far fewer nominations for Room 101 than we expected as participants focused on ways to improve rather than just things to stop


Suppliers need to do more…

There was a strong emphasis on honesty and transparency; councils want (and expect) to have suppliers playing straight with them about issues, constraints or limitations. It was great to hear this as there can sometimes be a temptation to tread too carefully around problems when they arise rather than give out bad news.

Councils want more flexibility in the nature of suppliers’ approach to procurement - incentives and trials/pilots were mentioned as examples. This is an area we would like to give some thought to, although it would present challenges in terms of understanding a platform like Digital Place in a short trial period.

There was a clear call for greater transparency in costs - unexpected charges or hidden costs were very unpopular with councils. It was good to see a suggestion of cost sharing between councils; something that Placecube has done a number of times with its customers.

A strong theme around partnerships and collaboration emerged from the feedback. Councils are looking to break from traditional ways of supply models where they are just the recipients of new features - they want to engage more with joint collaboration, suggestions for improvements and developing with suppliers. The idea of creating partnerships between councils and suppliers was mentioned, with longer-term relationships formed that engender trust between both sides. Placecube’s Customer Excellence model plays well to this theme, with monthly business meetings, on-site visits and a key contact to discuss requirements and issues.  

More transparency around roadmaps and future plans is something that was called for, which Placecube customers can already see in our live roadmap as we bring new development work into play. Our roadmap is directly influenced by our use of ProdPad as a tool to gather feedback from our customers, pull this together into ideas and initiatives and then move to themes of work to deliver.

Integration was another key area for councils; fewer restrictions, fewer charges and greater use of standards. Placecube’s use of open systems and standards, such as the Open Referral UK standard for its Open Place Directory data product, and the sharing of all developed integrations across our clients, within their subscription fee, already puts us in a good position. 

Reliability and good delivery were two further themes that emerged. The next steps once contracts are signed are crucial in getting software into councils’ hands, so flexibility and momentum were seen as important. Fulfilling promises and not overpromising were also highlighted as areas that councils expected suppliers to improve their behaviour. 

View all the feedback about what suppliers need to do here


Councils need to do these things differently…

There were a large number of principles of good behaviours that councils could adopt identified in the feedback, as councils and suppliers dug into the issues that create problems on both sides. These included: 

  • having realistic expectations 
  • being open to change and challenge 
  • taking more risks 
  • having respect (on both sides) for each other's time

These felt like a great set of discussion points that could be had at the start of any new project or relationship.

Clarity emerged as another behaviour for councils to focus on. This encompassed basics like being clear about what is needed, the scope of a project, understanding what software they have purchased and having clear objectives and ownership around a project.

This was amplified in the requirements theme - workshops sent a clear message that councils need to understand what they really want, define this well and develop them into clear requirements.

The procurement process on the councils’ side came under some scrutiny. Early engagement with suppliers was seen as a change that would bring benefits. It was highlighted that the time taken for councils to reach decisions and respond to supplier offers is too long in some cases, and the processes themselves were sometimes difficult. 

Finally, improved contract management was also seen as a change that would add value.

There were a number of mentions of leadership within councils being important. Having a collective top-down vision, good support and strategic thinking were all seen as success factors. 

As well as asking suppliers to collaborate better with them, councils also recognised that they needed to replicate this within their own organisations and join up with other departments, involving key stakeholders in projects. A welcome comment was made around a move away from older adversarial modes of working.

Improvements needed to internal organisation extended to budgets being in place and available to projects when they start, and having a focus on value and quality over costs. The delivery of  projects needed dedicated projects teams providing customer input at the right time, and being realistic about what suppliers can deliver.

View all the feedback around what councils need to do here


Our conclusions

  • getting a wide range of councils and suppliers from across the country together was a great opportunity for both sides to share some of the factors important to them to help improve relationships
  • we found a number of areas where Placecube already performs well against this collective expectation for suppliers, and others where we have been given food for thought on how we might improve

This series of workshops helped emphasise that honest conversations between suppliers and councils could help both sides work on improved relationships that can flourish into productive partnerships.

If you’re interested in talking to Placecube about how we can work together then get in touch to start a conversation with our team or book a demonstration.

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Neil Lawrence

About The Author

Neil Lawrence

Neil is a Product Owner in Placecube' Product Team. Prior to joining the team, he worked for over three decades in the public sector at local authorities ranging from parish to unitary councils. He has a background in performance management, project management, improvement and transformation, and led the digital team at Oxford City Council.  While at Oxford he led a national collaborative project with 12 other councils carrying out user research into the use of chatbots to solve customer issues. Neil joined Placecube from Dorset Council where he led the Web Team and managed the migration of their website to Digital Place for Local Public Services.

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