Photo of Betty-Sue Smith
In this interview, we’re delighted to speak to Betty-Sue Smith, Digital Manager of Q, which is part of The Health Foundation. Q is a community of thousands of people working together to improve health and care across the UK. We discuss how Q’s digital procurement process reinforced why they need to put user needs and inclusion front and centre.
1. Can you set the scene by telling us about Q’s digital journey so far?
In 2019, we started a project with our partners to develop proposals for the long-term future of Q. It built on what we’d heard from Q members and others over our first four years. We also ran workshops with Q members who had volunteered to help test early ideas. This led to a 10-year strategy. We secured support and investment from our partners and funders for this.

As part of the implementation, Q developed a participation strategy to understand how to increase participation. We were also working on a brand development project to ensure we could articulate why Q exists and the difference it makes.

Our ambition for Q’s digital infrastructure is to deliver the best user experience possible. This means using tools and channels that meet  members’ and key audiences’ needs in relation to how they want to engage and connect. We developed a digital strategy and roadmap with the Zoe Amar Digital team to support the digital implementation of the recommendations and findings from supporting strategies.

As part of developing the digital strategy, we identified the need for a new website. This was such a mission critical project for us and we knew we needed to get the procurement right.


2. How did you go about your new website procurement and what role did inclusion play in this? Why was it so important?
Q exists to help our members achieve their goals around collaborating and connecting to improve health and care. Our digital tools and platforms aren’t one size fits all. We need to be inclusive and understand what different members need.
The website project had to have user needs at its heart. It had to be inclusive so those with different lived experience among our members could be heard. This would help us make our website and digital spaces inclusive and so increase their impact.
The work we did for the digital roadmap helped lay strong foundations. We mapped key user journeys and analysed how our members use group spaces online.
Yet, we needed to find the right supplier. We wanted a supplier that was not only technically excellent but also shared our commitment to putting users and inclusion first. This meant revisiting our procurement process.
Like many larger charities, we have a clear procurement process, but we wanted to ensure the process didn’t favour large agencies. We needed to reach agencies who could help us consider users’ needs and understand what they want, ahead of our assumptions. This meant being inclusive right from the start of the project and involving users from diverse communities, not just the loudest or most active users (who could be a barrier to others getting involved).
We are on a journey at Q to put inclusion at the heart of what we do. We wanted a supplier who would go on this journey with us, so we could learn together and try and be better together. An open and honest relationship with us was vital. We are still learning about inclusion and evolving. Like digital transformation, inclusion is something that keeps growing. The work never ends.
Inclusion was a key part of the open invitation to tender, which we put on our website as it was of significant value. We held an open information call where suppliers could hear about our work and understand what was important to us and what we were looking for. The next step was for agencies to share a short expression of interest, responding to six key questions, one of which was about inclusion.
We wanted to keep the expression of interest process lean. We are very aware of the amount of time and money that goes into proposals, especially for small agencies who don’t have dedicated business development staff.
We received 26 expressions of interest and invited three suppliers to submit full proposals. Interviews followed so we could meet them in person. We scored them based on the interview and other information they had sent, including about data security and governance.
At the interview, the first question we asked was how the agency would embed inclusion as part of the website development process. This was important. We wanted to make it clear that inclusion was central to the project, not an add on. It sent out a clear signal about how vital it is. If you put it last, what does it say about the importance it plays, not just in the project, but also in your charity?
This question helped separate the agencies who had thought about inclusion from those who hadn’t. It was so effective that a colleague doing another procurement exercise is following our lead by asking about inclusion first at the interviews.
We listened to and queried agencies’ answers about inclusion, as well as the other aspects of the project and their experience, probing them on what they would do and how they might handle difficult decisions.
We ran the whole process as transparently as possible so agencies could see it as a true partnership. We wanted to learn about the journey that agencies were on with inclusion, as much as their ability to deliver a great website. We offered agencies detailed feedback after we had made our decision, as we knew how much time and effort they had invested in the process.
3. What did you learn from the process?
We learned how important it is to remain open to the right supplier and to maintain that throughout the process. That helped us find the right agency.
It was obvious which agencies had put thought into making their work inclusive. It was also clear who was being open and generous about sharing their inclusion journey and those who had processes in place but weren’t fully invested in inclusion.
We knew we needed to take a user-led approach to our website project. We had to be open to having our assumptions challenged and to creating spaces for that to happen. I learned that if you make inclusion a priority, it generates valuable learnings that you can take into other work.
The website procurement has reinforced why we need to put user needs and inclusion front and centre of all digital work. It was important to model this behaviour to my team and to our charity. In turn, this has built trust among stakeholders in what we are doing and that we are doing it in the right way.
Procurement isn’t a standalone exercise in buying the right product. It’s about how you can invest funds to meet the needs of diverse communities of users and so increase your impact.
4. What advice would you give to charities about how to make inclusion a key part of their digital procurement?
Speak to charities, agencies and organisations in and outside the sector who want to make inclusion part of their digital strategy. I learned a lot from speaking to others and finding out what they had tried. We also learned a lot from working with the Zoe Amar Digital team and reading sector blogs about inclusion.
You can’t be truly user-first without being inclusive. The most important thing we did was listen to our users and let them challenge our thinking.
To charities I’d say: think about the procurement process you are creating and who it is most likely to benefit. Are you risking excluding organisations, such as smaller or more diverse suppliers, because of the process and the cost associated with it? Are you hearing from groups and agencies from different sectors who you might not expect to hear from? Whose voices are you hearing the most?
5. What would you like to see digital agencies do to embed inclusion in their work? What could happen if they don’t do this?
I’d tell agencies to keep up with what is going on with charities and inclusion. And be genuine! We are all learning. Charities are putting inclusion at the centre of what they do and when working with partners we need to share those values with them. If the agency and the charity are on different paths, we risk creating products that don’t include our users. We can’t afford for that to happen as it would diminish our impact.
Having been through this process, it was obvious which agencies were truly committed to inclusion and for whom it was a journey. I’d love to see more agencies doing this, because it means that they can help charities make even more of a difference.