Is the government’s Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework being abused?

SUMMARY:

There is growing concern that buyers aren’t using the Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework correctly and work is going to the big SIs.

The government’s Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) framework is meant to be Whitehall’s answer to procurement for digital projects and buying in digital capability. It replaces the broken Digital Service Framework, which failed after it was claimed that it reduced suppliers to nothing more than ‘body shops’ and that buyers weren’t getting the value they needed.

The DOS framework was introduced to enable buyers to bring in certain skills via the ‘Specialists’ lot, but also, more importantly, to buy defined digital ‘Outcomes’, In other words, a government department could list a very specific digital service it wanted to build/buy, along with the requirements, and it could select a team to help it do that. As opposed, to picking and choosing skills without a defined outcome in mind.

However, I’m hearing from a number of sources that the framework is being ‘abused’ by departments that either don’t know what they’re doing, or are being deliberately vague in order to re-procure existing suppliers under the guise of ‘transparency’ on the Digital Marketplace.

I’m hearing complaints that a lot of the supplier opportunities listed are not what you’d call ‘outcomes’, in other words they are much broader in scope, or are very vague. I’m also being told that the budgets for some of ‘outcomes’ are so high (some as much as £25 million) that the listings couldn’t possibly be a single digital outcome, and that this ultimately excludes SMEs from bidding for the work – when the DOS framework is meant to be a vehicle for SMEs to win business.

The general feeling amongst the people I have spoken to is that the framework is being used as a front for the SME and digital agenda, but is being hijacked by buyers that want to procure with the traditional, large SIs – almost all of which are listed as suppliers.

However, it’s currently impossible to tell who is winning business and for how much, without going down the laborious Freedom of Information route, as the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and Government Digital Service (GDS) don’t publish sales figures and/or contract wins in the open – as they do with DOS’ sister framework, the G-Cloud.

You’ve got to wonder – why not? Why is transparency being applied to the G-Cloud framework but not DOS? Greater transparency around buyer decisions would certainly quell any concerns about abuse of the framework, as accountability becomes far easier.

Spend controls

According to GDS’ current spend control guidance, central government departments spending more than £100,000 would need to get approval from GDS itself. Which means that GDS is either approving digital outcomes that are worth up to £25 million, it is becoming more lax about what it approves, or the outcomes being listed should not actually be listed on the DOS framework.

However, that being said, it was revealed this week that GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington is going to scrap this £100,000 spending control, in favour of “much more considered, continuous interactions”.

I put some questions to the Cabinet Office about the potential abuse of the framework. A spokesperson said:

The Digital Outcomes and Specialist framework is designed to make it easier than ever for SMEs to do business with the public sector.

Everything classified as central government is governed by the spend controls process and assured against the Technology Code of Practice before it can be listed as an opportunity on Digital Outcomes and Specialists.

This means that the following opportunities, which are supposed to be defined outcomes, are being approved by GDS. For example, this one from the DVSA for Digital Delivery Partner(s):

DVSA require Agile delivery capability ranging from Discovery through to Live and C.I. to deliver modern digital applications in line with Digital Service Standards. This includes embracing a culture of collaborative working that leads to successful Service Assessment outcomes and solutions that meet user needs and represent value for money.”

Budget approval is subject to Cabinet Office spending controls, service assessments and DfT/DVSA governance. A pipeline of activity is foreseen over the next 24 months for which the approval process has commenced. The budget is very difficult to determine at present as business cases are still under review. Based on the scope being considered the budget could range from £5m to £25m consisting of multiple SoWs, but that scope could expand or contract. DVSA does not commit to any minimum or maximum spend at this point.

Very broad in scope. Huge budget for an ‘outcome’. And actually asks for multiple statements of work, within what is meant to be a defined outcome.

Or how about this one from the Home Office for ‘Transactional Project Service’:

Deliver technology change in the Businesses , in a responsive way, through the use of skilled, experienced and qualified resources. Technology change can be enabling the shared access and implementation of corporate capability, and/or the delivery of local capability, specific to the local needs.

Up to the maximum value of £4m over the term. Spend in 16/17 on equivalent coverage is likely to be approximately £1m.

I see no defined outcome. There was no early market engagement. And the spend is, again, excessive.

If you browse the suppliers opportunities on the Digital Marketplace, you’ll find plenty examples that are similar to the ones described above.

My take

This is worrying. The Digital Services Framework, and the now DOS framework, were introduced after agile was stripped out of the G-Cloud framework, following legal concerns. Agile on the G-Cloud framework seemed to work fairly well, as people bought commodity solutions and then brought in some digital capability to help integrate or build.

However, the fact that multi-million pound change management projects are being listed as ‘digital outcomes’ on the DOS framework shows that something isn’t working here. Some of the digital agency SME people I have spoken to said that they would never bid for work over £1 million, because they couldn’t deliver value on an ‘outcome’ for that large amount of money.

But they did say that for all of the traditional outsourcers and SIs, £1m to £5m is small change and that the framework is an easy way for them to pick up work.

Equally, one person suggested to me that the framework is being used as a vehicle to re-procure existing suppliers. Buyers are able to say they are being ‘open and transparent’, but there is very little visibility into the decisions being made or the spend going through the framework.

Another source said that so few of the listings are outcomes that i makes it very hard to bid for any work at all. They added that buyer capability is a big problem, the departments just don’t know what they’re doing or what they’re looking for, and are doing no early market engagement (despite this being built in to the framework).

Of course this all begs the question – with GDS’ new ‘conciliatory’ approach (read: hands off), are departments ready to go it alone? Do they have the necessary skills and capability to build the required services without strict central controls?

However, the main takeaway should be that we need more transparency. Who is spending what on what, and with whom?

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