DSF 2: The government needs to understand digital isn't a commodity service

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 10, 2015
Summary:
Following the troubles of the first Digital Services framework, the second iteration, DSf 2, has sparked a backlash from suppliers. Is CCS too 'old-school' to understand the needs?

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Election 2015

For the past week or so tensions have been rising between suppliers to Whitehall, the Government Digital Service and the Crown Commercial Service, because of changes to the latest iteration of the G-Cloud and the imminent launch of the second Digital Services Framework.

For some background – the G-Cloud is a framework that has in many respects revolutionised procurement in government, whereby commodity cloud services are priced and listed transparently on a web store for the public sector to browse and purchase. It has lowered the barriers to entry for SMEs and has driven the purchasing of cloud across central government.

The Digital Services Framework was launched to complement this – where whilst the G-Cloud was focused on commodity services, DSF was intended to provide advanced digital skills and capabilities to government departments to work on complex digital projects.

It's important to remember that whilst they are regularly grouped together, they have very different aims.

However, there is mounting concern that both frameworks are in trouble, particularly the Digital Services Framework, which has sparked a backlash from design agencies and the supplier community.

We at diginomica reported on the problems of the first Digital Services Framework, which in many respects was considered a failure. But thanks to the inclusion of agile services on the G-Cloud – where a lot of the spend to date has been going – concerns over DSF were diluted.

If DSF wasn't working, suppliers were listing themselves on G-Cloud and were picking up business there instead. It was easier and more accessible.

However, the Crown Commercial Service in all its wisdom – an organisation that is attached to the Cabinet Office and maintains control over the fundamental workings of both G-Cloud and DSF frameworks – decided to remove agile services from G-Cloud 6, the latest iteration.

The idea being that G-Cloud should just be for commodity, off-the-shelf products and DSF should be for digital capabilities. And in theory, no-one has a problem with this.

What is causing problems is that apparently DSF 2.0 still doesn't address the digital needs of government and has been labelled a 'meat-market' for cheap labour.

Which begs the question, does the Crown Commercial Service really understand that digital isn't a commodity service? Whilst it aims to split digital out from cloud, by treating DSF suppliers as commodity items it has alienated the community and will likely not plug the gap that needs to be filled.

Tensions are running high

British Government's Commercial Director, Sarah Hurrell
British Government's Commercial Director, Sarah Hurrell

At the Think Cloud for Government conference in London yesterday, tensions were running high between GDS, CCS and G-Cloud founder Chris Chant. Whilst commercial director of technology at CCS, Sarah Hurrell, took time to talk up how much the organisation loves the G-Cloud, Chant hit out at CCS's capabilities, claiming that the frameworks should be under GDS' control and that CCS should be “scrapped”.

It is my understanding that there is also somewhat of a power struggle going on internally at the Cabinet Office between GDS and CCS.

Chant's comments come after a series of blog posts and debates on Twitter between leading UK agencies about the failings of the Digital Services Framework. Harry Metcalf, MD at dxw, prompted the debate with a blog post claiming that DSF was “not fit for purpose” and essentially reduced suppliers listed to cheap 'body-shops'.

Much of the complaints come down to the way that the framework was created and how the competition to get listed was run. For example, as with the first framework, there was a reverse auction – whereby suppliers placed their bids to get listed and the cheapest ones were chosen. Although CCS this time round did put a limit on how cheap a service could be, many still perceive this approach to focus on price, rather than quality.

Equally, Metcalf complains about how the framework is split into lots of developers, designers, user researchers and delivery managers. He argues that this simply allows government to pick and choose when it wants a specific type of cheap labour to complement its internal teams, instead of viewing agencies as providing an entire capability to work on a project. Metcalf writes:

But that’s not the way DSF works. On DSF, you might win one lot in a project and no others. Developers, but no designers. It’s a way to buy people, not projects. The framework is essentially a mechanism for body-shopping, which is just not workable for most suppliers.

A good company is more than the sum total of its staff’s Linkedin profiles. As big a part of the quality and effectiveness of a company as its individuals are its culture and its shared experience. Its collective sense of purpose and mission, and its corporate memory. And the effectiveness of its teams, based on their trust, friendship, mutual respect and understanding. In dxw’s experience, clients value these things as much as they value our technical expertise.

Taking a handful of developers from one company, some designers from another, a delivery manager from a third and co-locating them in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar management and unfamiliar process, hoping that they develop the skills of a strong team and then disbanding them after a few months is short-sighted at best, and unworkable at worst. It overlooks the value that can be gained from a close working relationship with an organisation whose skills and values are complementary to those of the buyer.

Metcalf argues that DSF 2 should have been about finding companies that match the culture of GDS and that CCS have set up a framework that simply extracts staff from companies, whilst assuming that the companies themselves have nothing good to offer. He adds that the DSF should be ditched and G-Cloud should be the way forward:

We need to build on the shining example of the G-Cloud framework, using short contracts, open standards, flexible terms and financial transparency to manage cost and commercial risk. Heavy-handed procurement process should be a thing of the past.

We need to abandon DSF, reinstate development in G-Cloud, and get on with delivering.

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Personally I'm not convinced that this is the right long-term approach. Just because G-Cloud is better than DSF and is workable, doesn't mean its right for these companies. But more on that later.

Metcalf also had a fascinating conversation with Simon Wardley on Twitter, which he compiled into a Storify here and should definitely be read through for some insights into the problems and opportunities that are presented by this discussion. The discussion highlights instances where projects are being ditched because (in Metcalf's view, unnecessary) requirements are being put down by CCS and that it is imposing policy when there is no need.



 

Digital is creative, not a commodity

This morning I also spoke to Andy Budd, a partner at design agency Clearleft, who is also struggling with DSF. Whilst Budd has nothing but praise for GDS, he feels let down by the approach taken with DSF.

He explained that he was one of the people first encouraged to participate with the design of the framework and was promised a next generation procurement process that was simple and friction free. However, on the first iteration of DFS he found that it was “horrible” and that all CCS were trying to do was get the best possible price, instead of the best possible value. Budd said:

If I'm doing really important transactions online, I want to know that they have been built by people that really know what they're doing, not junior to mid-level people.

However, Clearleft was listed. And won no work. And second time round, DSF has caused even more problems for Budd and his company – namely by dropping the category of senior design staff, meaning that the only people listed will be junior to mid-level employees. Budd explained:

Next time round it was worse, at the 11th hour they decided to drop the senior practitioner category. Everyone at our company has 10 to 15 years experience, so there was absolutely no room for us to be on their roster.

The thing that's frustrating, and feels a bit like a double standard, is that GDS has gone out of its way to hire the best people in the industry to work internally – so I would have thought that they should have wanted to have a similar calibre of people in their agencies? Dropping that senior role makes it feel like they're body shopping, they're trying to get lots of cheap junior staff to bulk out their senior staff. I think that's the wrong approach, I think it's going to lead to lower quality work.

Budd agrees with Metcalf on this point and said that the problems that GDS are trying to fix are bigger than they can hire for – where he believes that they have already “hoovered up” a lot of the talent. Again, Budd reiterates that he thinks GDS is a wonderful thing, but argues that DSF shouldn't be about commodity products, such as those found on the G-Cloud.

He also agrees with Chant and believes that GDS are hitting a brick will. Budd said:

G-Cloud is great if you're trying to buy 1,000 rack servers, or basically a million tonnes of concrete, but that attitude is based on that you're buying services that are indistinguishable from each other, so all you want to do is make sure that a certain number of check balances are done and we are getting the cheapest product. But creative services don't work like that.

I think that the people at GDS, if they are given the ability and the authority, have the knowledge to try and change all that. I think they're running up against the old guard government way of doing things.”

The situation that we're in, and the situation that a lot of other agencies are in, is that we don't need the work – we have got clients lining up to work with us. But we want to do something great for our country and for citizens.

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Budd explained that he has recently been through a procurement process with the BBC – which is also subject to much of the regulations and procedures facing Whitehall – and he said that he thought it was “one of the best” procurement processes that he has been through.

What the BBC did is that instead of overburdening suppliers with heavy due diligence up-front, they simply asked that the design agencies prove that they are a legal entity and they can trade and that they provide three case studies of recent work. The BBC procurement team, according to Budd, then whittled down 300 applicants to 20 or so and went and visited each of the agencies on-site to establish the culture of the agencies, get to know the characters working there and whether or not they were a fit for the BBC. Budd said:

They could then know based on the quality of the individuals and the agencies. I know that is a lot of effort on the part of the procurement team, but that is their duty.

If we want government to be truly digital, it has to understand the capabilities of the agencies, capabilities of the people. If you don't have savvy buyers in charge of that, you're going to pick the wrong folks.

My take

This is all very worrying.

I personally don't know enough about the internal politics to know whether or not CCS should be scrapped. However, what I do know, is that I trust GDS to get these things right and they should probably be in charge of DSF and G-Cloud. At the end of the day CCS has been put in place to save money, to be commercially minded, it's not there to transform government digital services.

If it isn't understanding what is needed to do that, the responsibility should be absorbed elsewhere.

My view is that the Digital Marketplace isn't necessarily the right approach. I think G-Cloud services should absolutely be searchable, stand side by side, transparently and be viewed as off-the-shelf. But I'm not convinced that DSF should be provided under a similar mechanism.

That's not to say that DSF should be a bureaucratic process of days gone by.

g-cloud-in-the-sky

But maybe GDS should be charged with getting to know 30 of the UK's top agencies – large and small – understand their capabilities and how they could help government, understand their culture, understand how they could help. And then get these companies to be listed for digital projects happening in Whitehall? GDS could even recommend certain agencies for certain projects, once they understand their unique characteristics.

Digital services aren't a commodity and I don't believe should be listed as one. They are supported by commodity services – platforms and hardware. But if we want to build new transactions for government, that's a complex job that needs more understanding of the capabilities needed than an off-the-shelf product.

This needs fixing ASAP.