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Get started in public sector work

Working for government organisations may sound a little dull, but for many designers it can be a lucrative source of income, as Craig Grannell finds out

There are plenty of preconceived ideas about public sector work, but you only need to talk to those designers immersed in it to dispel such ideas for good. “Institutions in this space are perceived as “boring”,” says An-Mari Peter, managing director and co-founder of design agency on-IDLE, “but they’re filled with excitable, innovative and intelligent people.”

Who cares about the people when the work is as dull as dishwater, you may argue, but that’s another largely inaccurate pre-conception. “In some ways, public sector work can be restrictive – there are more rules and regulations, and decision-making is more collective – but to say innovation is stifled is not at all true,” says Applied Information Group’s Tim Fendley.

Fendley argues that it’s all about people: if the commissioner is an innovative character, you have space. “If a client wants what everyone else has, then that’s what needs to be delivered,” he says. “However, if the problem is new, public sector organisations often get behind innovative work, as long as it’s justified and damn good!”

Ironically, local government is often less political than commercial organisations with competing departments, says Fendley: “In Bristol, our whole identity idea rested on the colour blue – not a logo. It was unanimously accepted… by a Labour Council!”

Peters agrees that innovation is strong in the public sector: “Institutions want to be leaders in their field and are normally open to innovative design and new technologies – more so than corporate customers,” she says. “The guidelines and corporate identities are no more restrictive than normal design work and simply have to be taken into account as you would during the normal planning and storyboarding process.”

So how does public sector work differ from other design work? “Government work has a different character to commercial work,” says Fendley.

“The drivers are different and it’s often slow to get funding and to get started. But once a project is tendered and underway, it almost always follows-through.” By contrast, he says, commercial projects can start quickly and more dynamically, but then be changed, re-focused or stopped at the drop of a hat.

Caspar Kennerdale, head of project operations at interactive design consultancy Recollective, agrees, highlighting the fact that “in public sector work, money is funded for a service or for information as opposed to a commercial drive.” Budgets are often fixed, so you need to work out what can be done and whether compromises are required.

“Such decisions are made easier by having good knowledge of the aims of public sector organisations and how they work,” says Kennerdale. “For example, getting key decisions made by communications departments can be a little more difficult than in commercial companies, where they may have a direct financial stake in the project. Also, new project stakeholders – such as other funding bodies – can suddenly emerge in the final hour as decision makers themselves, which can prove frustrating.”

The committee aspect of public sector work frustrates Peters, too. “Each time creative output is presented, it takes a long time to receive feedback and sign-off, because everyone has to have a say,” she says. “Because public sector projects take a long time, client-side project leaders change, and new leaders want to stamp their own identity on something they weren’t initially involved with.

“Feedback from main decision makers sometimes arrives when a project is almost ready to launch, which can cause friction, because they were not involved from the start, but then have final say,” says Peters, who recommends allowing for contingency fees and amendment cycles during the contract stage.

Flexibility in planning is also essential, as deadlines may change based on accommodating the needs of all parties involved. “It’s not unusual for these customers to demand a mock-up or prototype at short notice, to show progress at an unexpected meeting,” says Peters. “But don’t get bogged down by red tape and the political intricacies surrounding the project. Keep the focus on what it is and what it will be!”

And don’t be put off by such tales, says The Ronin’s Rob Chiu, because the public sector doesn’t always work based on accommodating the needs of all parties involved. “It’s not unusual always been after whatever it is that I do, so I’m generally given reasonably free reign over the aesthetic of jobs.”

Unfortunately, the reality of public sector work is that clients rarely come to you. “It’s hard to get into this field without putting in a lot of effort, finding the right people, and bidding unsuccessfully until you work out how to do it,” claims Fendley, who says this process took AIG a few years to perfect. He suggests identifying what you are really good at and not striving to be too different from the competition: “Projects are won by bidding, and if your offer is too different, you can’t be compared.”

Usefully, there are numerous routes available to agencies to keep abreast of what is happening within the public sector and tender arena. Tim Gibbon of Elemental PR advises his clients of various publications, online resources and communities that key decision makers frequent – OJ Watch Service, Public Tender, Tenders Direct and Tender Match, to name just a few.

“In addition, we monitor publications, aiming to figure out and work with future trends, keeping ahead and moving with what will happen in the public sector,” says Gibbon. “You also need to interact directly with key decision makers by attending industry conferences, events and seminars, and ensure your marketing machine is working so that clients start to gravitate towards you.”

It takes time, money and effort, but the rewards are worth it. “Public sector work leads to other related projects more than work from the commercial sector,” says Kennerdale. “Departments are often interconnected, working on satellite schemes.” And Arthur op den Brouw, director of new media agency Designation agrees: “Back in 1998, we produced a series of books for the Institute of Physics on the future of fuel cell technology. Eight years later and we’re heading a consortium, along with several public sector directly with key decision makers by attending industry conferences, organisations, about to launch a number of fuel cell-driven boats on one of London’s central waterways!”

Chiu has also been astonished by the way public sector work leads to other projects: “Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you’re usually put on to a preferred supplier list. As long as you keep everyone happy, you’re fine!” Chiu’s work found its way to an excited recipient at the University of Huddersfi eld, and his relationship with the organisation has resulted in the acclaimed Black Day To Freedom. “It’s a book and DVD that aims to cover social issues via illustration, design and motion graphics, with contributions from some of the hottest designers around,” Chiu explains. In some ways, this is a controversial project: some won’t agree with the opinions expressed, and others may consider it an excuse to do fancy graphics, but Chiu sees things differently: “Some of the issues covered are not well understood by people who aren’t interested in reading the broadsheets and don’t care for the harsh approach of the tabloids. We’re trying to reach people through art and subtlety.”

It’s safe to say, then, that if you take on public sector work, you should be in it for the long-term. Op den Brouw notes that a recent project – material for the Arts Development team of Slough Borough Council, which culminated in the development of a campaign to support the revitalisation of Slough High Street – has been ongoing for three years. He says that this kind of security is useful whenindustry takes a sudden downturn: “Perhaps a quarter of our income is from public sector work, but during a difficult patch a few years ago, this proportion increased, helping the company to survive one of the industry’s toughest times.”

Of course, despite the likelihood of repeat work being greater in the public sector, there are no guarantees, so you should never be complacent, says Fendley: “Do what you say you will do and create really good work. There are many who sell themselves well and then don’t deliver, but the public sector is very well networked, and if you produce poor work, you will get a bad name – fast!”

Tim Gibbon of Elemental PR recommends two resources for further reading on public sector work – Tenders Direct ( and Local Government Chronicle (LGC—

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