Should the Crown Commercial Service admit defeat and relinquish control of the procurement of technology and digital services to the Government Digital Service, which should take charge in redesigning the very troubled Digital Services Framework?
This seems to be the question at the front of a lot of people's minds.
For those following or involved in digital going-ons in government in the UK, the events of last week are probably best described as tumultuous.
Two influential people spoke out and issued a call to arms, separately, about things that they feel aren't acceptable - and as a result, many people are talking about the problems involved and about what needs to be done to progress Whitehall's digital ambitions.
First to express concern was Harry Metcalfe, MD at design agency dxw, who wrote a blog post stating that the government's second iteration of the Digital Services Framework (a framework that was pretty unsuccessful first time around) was still “not fit for purpose”.
The Digital Services Framework is meant to provide government with the digital capabilities it needs to tackle projects that are aimed at modernising processes, as more and more transactions move online. However, Metcalfe, and a few other agencies, argue that thanks to the poor design of the framework, it has reduced suppliers to nothing more than cheap 'body-shops'.
Shortly after this, Chris Chant, the main person behind the creation of the very successful G-Cloud, a framework that aims to provide government with access to commodity, off-the-shelf software, and open up public sector work to SMEs, hit out at the Crown Commercial Service – calling for it to be “scrapped”.
Chant claimed that CCS messed up the Digital Services Framework and that its “old world influence” is seen in the framework, as well as newer releases of the G-Cloud, causing problems for buyers and suppliers.
I discussed this in detail in a piece last week that demanded that the government needs to understand that 'digital' isn't a commodity service, which you can find here. However, since that piece was published, I've had some further discussions with many of the stakeholders involved, and I think the conversation has moved on somewhat.
Yes, the Digital Services Framework isn't working. So, what can we do about it?
In my previous article on the matter, I implied that the Crown Commercial Service was at fault for the design of the Digital Services Framework and that the Government Digital Service should perhaps play more of a role. It has since been pointed out to me that CCS is mostly procurement support – CCS states that the Government Digital Service does have full control of the G-Cloud and Digital Services Framework programmes, but CCS has to advise when and how decisions could expose them to legal challenges.
It was put to me that CCS will say to the Government Digital Service that X change to the frameworks will require a new procurement notice that could take Y number of weeks, but compromise Z wouldn't require any lengthy procurement action. But ultimately, it is the Government Digital Service's decision what route to take.
However, it was also put to me that CCS's role is to keep everyone out of court and that it does have to say “no” sometimes when if feels that the government is exposed.
Read into this what you will. Whilst some may argue that CCS is just doing its job and has got the difficult role of trying to keep everyone happy within restrictive EU procurement regulations, others may say that it is a laggard that isn't prepared to take some bold risks.
One question for me that springs to mind is – would the G-Cloud have been born, in its current guise, if it had had to get through CCS? I don't know. That's not to say I think CCS doesn't like the G-Cloud or that it wants it gone, quite the opposite, but I'm not sure it would have approved in the early days. Would they have taken on the risk? G-Cloud when it launched was considered a very different way of doing things.
Which brings me to my main point. Should GDS take on responsibility for procurement of digital services and technology in government? There's certainly an argument for it.
Bill McCluggage, ex-Deputy CIO for UK government, left my a comment on my previous story that suggests just this. He said:
The point seems to be that the power-base and design authority for the DSF framework (G-Cloud is also a framework in EU legal terms) shifted to CCS who have adopted a commercial approach focused on minimising cost (body shopping based on reverse e-auctions). This meets the need of the commercial team who are driven by ruthless cost reduction but results in failure to deliver on engineering/design quality - a key requirement of the commissioning organisation (the digital teams) and one of the three components of the cost/quality/time triangle!
This reflects the age old tension that has often occurred between the commissioning team (usually engineering side) and the procurement/commercial team - primarily because their goals/visions are not aligned.
One suggestion is to create an agile procurement team in GDS that includes deployed subject matter experts from CCS with full responsibility for the next iteration of the DSF. In the same way as the MOD created Integrated Project Teams (IPTs) in the 90s perhaps GDS should create an APT (Agile Procurement Team) to design and operate the next DSF? Just a thought.
McCluggage raises many interesting points in his comment. Firstly, it picks up on the tension between CCS'sobjective of driving out costs and saving money – that is principally why it was set up – and the Government Digital Service's focus on design and user need.
Are the compromises resulting in mediocre frameworks and tools that don't actually deliver the revolutionary results that are actually needed in the public sector to drive change? Does Whitehall need to grow a bit of a backbone and be bold in its delivery?
Yes, government has to work within regulations, but it's not as if the old way of doing things has left us unexposed from legal challenges has it? There are a number of large procurements in recent years that have failed, but the government has had to continue paying suppliers because it was scared of legal challenges. There have also been some unsavoury settlements. All of this has happened whilst 'avoiding risk'.
- How G-Cloud became a poster child for the UK government's SME engagement policy
- UK gov comes to Think Cloud to praise not bury G-Cloud
- Digital Marketplace opens for business as G-Cloud 6 gets underway
I also spoke to Harry Metcalfe, the man behind the original Digital Services Framework blog, about whether or not the Government Digital Service should take control of tech procurement. He agrees it is a sensible alternative and said that CCS's culture is holding back modern initiatives. Metcalfe said:
I am profoundly unconvinced by CCS. They take a very old fashioned, very risk averse approach. They're so worried about being sued or challenged legally by suppliers that they have massive inertia, and their ability to make change is much restricted as a result. I'm not convinced that the models for procurement we have at the moment are the right thing for anything anymore, but the only thing I know about is IT procurement, so the only thing I'd be happy to say firmly is that I'm sure that dominant models in government are definitely the wrong way to procure anything creative.
And certainly the work that suppliers like dxw are doing on digital services is creative work. Although it is also very technical, trying to find new ways to solve these problems, and to meet user needs compellingly, is a creative undertaking. If you approach it from a mindset of 150 page contracts and nutty regulation – and of course you can't go and meet the potential client because that would be unfair – you set up a process that encourages failure down the line.
For me, where a procurement function sits, or what the framework is called, or any of that kind of stuff, doesn't really bother me that much. The important thing is that it is done right. And if CCS were to wake up next week and suddenly change their stripes, I would be the first to congratulate them for it and it would be great. But I do think organisationally and culturally they're not in a position where it is going to be terribly easy to change. To that end, as a good pragmatic solution to the problem, I think moving IT procurement to a function within GDS is a good idea.
So what does Metcalfe propose should change in terms of the structure of the framework? He believes that some of the fundamental assumptions about the way that public procurement works should be challenged – namely that as soon as taxpayer money is being spent, any company that is capable of delivering the work should get a look in.
Metcalfe argues that we need to get away from this idea that even if there is a project that hundreds of suppliers could do, that doesn't mean that we have to send a notification to all of those companies just in case someone wants it. He said:
As soon as we get away from this, a lot of other problems go away, because we no longer have to deal with the possibility that we are going to have to evaluate hundreds of responses fairly, which is more or less impossible to do in a sensible way. That's one of the problems that G-Cloud solves quite well, you only get told if somebody finds you based on the information you have put on the Digital Marketplace.
Just to clarify this point – the G-Cloud was seen as innovative because it was a central procurement notification, which was iterated upon regularly, that suppliers signed up to. But once they were listed, buyers could browse for suppliers they liked the look of. Buyers no longer had to spec their design from the start, alerting all suppliers in the market, which has typically caused problems for the agile approach.
And to be fair, the Digital Services Framework should also have worked like this in theory, but certain elements of its design (such as the separation out of roles and the reverse auction) meant that it ended up being a body-shop, instead of a list of competent design agencies.
Metcalfe wants something similar to the G-Cloud, but with an additional assessment in the early stages of procurement. He said:
I think way we should solve this is by having a very similar process to G-Cloud, but with an extra step at the start. So rather than it being a free-for-all and anyone who wants to get on can, I think we do need some kind of evaluation step. GDS has a perfectly reasonable interest in making sure that the companies doing this work have demonstrated that they have the skills, experiences and mindset to work according to the models set out in the Service Design Manual. That's important, we need these things to be delivered in the right way.
The most important thing is to focus on user need. And the second most important thing is a willingness and aptitude to challenge assumptions. The change that the sector needs to see is really substantial. We need people that can go into ALBs and departments and listen to what the client has to say – and if they think that that client isn't embracing modern ways of doing things, if they're just trying to replicate a paper process on the internet, or if they're not challenging their own organisational process and practice, then we need suppliers that are confident enough to say so - and do it robustly.
You need suppliers that are willing to put in the hard work to figure out how to make these things simple. All of that starts by taking needs first and following an agile approach to delivery.
It's an interesting idea and one that should be considered. Whilst I don't think that CCS has any badintentions, it's approach does feel very risk averse. I don't think anyone wants taxpayer money to be used to fight legal challenges, but I'm also of the view that I don't think the risk averse approach has resulted in any less of this happening.
I think a lot of people would actually be okay with the government saying: this is what we are doing, because it's the best thing to do for our citizens, and if you don't like it, bring it on.
But this aside, it doesn't seem that what's need is much different from the G-Cloud. There just needs to be some effort put in from government to assess the companies applying to make sure that they understand the challenges involved and can challenge the status quo in line with the Government Digital Service's service design manual.
This is about modernising procurement. The way things have worked for the past two decades haven't worked well. Align procurement with design's needs.
As I said previously – the Digital Services Framework shouldn't be seen as a tool to list commodity services. Digital isn't a commodity.