Digital Marketplace suppliers raise fresh concerns over government procurement

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 10, 2018
A survey carried out by dxw, a prominent supplier on the Digital Marketplace, calls for greater quality assurance of opportunities put out by government.

Westminster Government
Suppliers are speaking out about the poor quality of government procurement, claiming that the opportunities being published are so poorly described, that they’re often not even worth bidding for. This is according to the latest survey carried out by prominent Digital Marketplace supplier, dxw, which shared the survey with its own network and the Digital Marketplace team, which shared it with all listed suppliers.

Managing director at dxw, Harry Metcalfe, will be meeting the Government Digital Service (GDS) this week to discuss the findings of the survey and will be asking for greater quality assurance around the publishing of opportunities. Metcalfe has been about the need to improve the Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) framework, which is listed on the Digital Marketplace.

DOS is meant 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, dxw’s latest survey calls into question the effectiveness of this framework, which found that 71% of respondents (suppliers) believed that opportunities did not adequately explain what problem was being solved. Respondents also said that 74% of opportunities did not clearly describe the user needs.

Some 68% of opportunities, according to the survey, did not have a clear summary of work, and 65% said that the opportunities did not adequately explain why the work was being done.

Other results from the survey include:

  • 77 percent of opportunities require six or more essential skills
  • 71 percent did not clearly explain the pre-tender market engagement, if present
  • 68 percent did not have a clear summary of work
  • 65 percent did not adequately explain why the work was being done
  • 45 percent shortlisted five or more suppliers
  • 32 percent did not clearly describe the budget.

The significance

The results from the survey come at a time when GDS and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) are rethinking the Digital Marketplace platform, where they have said that it will be more “scalable and flexible”. As a result, it’s worth considering how the frameworks and procurement in general could be improved too.

I got the chance to dxw’s Metcalfe about the survey, where he said that the vast majority of the opportunities out there are poorly thought out. He said:

The survey sort of backed up our belly feel, which is that about a quarter to a third of opportunities are ones that we read, where we get it, we understand what they need, and then we can write something sensible fairly easily.

Then the rest of them are just confusing, they’re difficult to understand, the requirements are overlapping - so you find yourself repeating yourself quite a lot. Or where they talk about user needs, or where they talk about the work being done, they just saying something that’s the equivalent of ‘we need this work, because we need a team, because we need this work’. It leaves you nothing to get your teeth into to be able to demonstrate that you will do a better job than anyone else.

Metcalfe said that for majority of opportunities, dxw just doesn’t consider putting in a bid, as for a piece of work that’s got a value of between £500,000 and £1 million, it will cost the supplier up to £25,000 in staff time to put the bid together. He added:

If we look at something and we are not confident that there’s the information there to actually write something cogent, it’s just not worth the risk. It’s better for us to put more effort into the ones that we have some more understanding of. I know, from talking to other suppliers, there are many companies that just don’t bid for government work at all.

And although this is frustrating for suppliers, what does this mean for government buyers and for the services that they are procuring? Metcalfe said:

I think we can say, with some confidence, is that if the process at the start is bad, it is going to be difficult for government to appoint the supplier that’s the best fit for the work. A very natural consequence of that, is that outcomes will be poorer for users.

As noted above, Metcalfe is meeting with GDS this week to discuss the findings and what can be done to improve outcomes. So what would dxw like to see improve? Metcalfe would like to see more support centrally for buyers on what contributes to a ‘good opportunity’. He said:

I hope that we will get some kind of quality assurance, essentially. So that opportunities are read by a team of some seasoned commercial and digital experts before they go live. And then off the back of that process, there will be some capacity made available centrally for support for buyers who are writing these opportunities.

Quite often you read one and you can kind of see what they’re trying to get at, and it’s frustrating, because you know if you could sit down with them and go through it, you could get it pretty easily. If somebody in government was in a position to do that, the quality of opportunities would increase substantially and make the whole process much easier.

My take

The question is, does Whitehall have the capacity at the moment to care about the finer details of digital procurement? I hope so. When the G-Cloud framework was launched, the British government was hailed as thought leaders in the future of procurement. With digital frameworks and the Digital Marketplace platform up in the air for the next year or so, we need to make sure that this opportunity isn’t missed to improve things further.