This is particularly pertinent given that back in March, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) made a U-turn on a controversial decision to put a hold on updating the G-Cloud framework for 12 months - stating that it would in fact open for submissions in April.
In November, the decision to put a hold on updating the framework meant that a new iteration would not have gone live for two years, prompting dismay from suppliers.
It was thought that CCS was working on a new version of the Digital Marketplace and it said that the new G-Cloud framework would introduce “consistent, standard yet flexible contracting model options”. It’s not clear whether or not the new Digital Marketplace platform will go ahead.
Back in November, CCS said that the decision to extend G-Cloud had “not being taken lightly”, but that it would “allow time for CCS and GDS to deliver a revolutionary transformation to the platform to meet more user needs”.
At the time, the move prompted a backlash from the supplier community, which rightly argued that two years was a long time for government buyers to wait for innovations to be introduce, for price reductions (which are common in cloud services) to not be factored in, and for new suppliers to be excluded from the market.
A two year wait is also a far cry from the founding principles of the G-Cloud framework, which aimed for iterations every six months.
It’s worth stating that the G-Cloud has been one of the government’s greatest digital successes. What started as a small project with a few key players has turned into a multi-billion marketplace for the public sector, promoting cloud technologies and SME suppliers.
However, a lot has changed in recent years. Concerns are growing about the future role of GDS - particularly since data governance and policy was spun out into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - and there is increased pressure on departments to deliver technology projects as a result of Brexit. In addition, it seems that the larger systems integrators are getting a boon, with a number of extensions to contracts being announced in recent months.
As such, it’s worth asking, is the G-Cloud living up to its early promises? It was intended to diversify the supplier base in Whitehall, with a strong focus on SMEs, and policy was introduced to drive buyers in its direction. One of the framework’s supplier success stories, UKCloud, has spoken to diginomica/government about its concerns for the future of G-Cloud - stating that more coordination is need to drive buyers towards its use and that stronger policy is needed to avoid reverting to problems of the past where large systems integrators rule the roost.
Legacy rears its ugly head
I got the chance to speak with Nicky Stewart, UKCloud’s Commercial Director, and Iain Patterson, former director of common technology services at GDS, now chief digital officer at UKCloud. Both Stewart and Iain, particularly given his background, have deep insights into the development of G-Cloud over the years and raised a number of concerns about its future.
Stewart acknowledges that whilst CCS’ decision to not delay G-Cloud 10 was an “excellent” one, she admits that there is a trade-off, given that the framework has largely been carbon copied from G-Cloud 9.
Patterson also points to recent announcements from Defra and HMRC, which saw them either extending contracts with existing legacy suppliers, or admitting that they weren’t going to pursue some of the digital projects that they had planned. Patterson says:
We are seeing a trend in government that the system integrators are making the absolute spend - there is going to be more permission to allow them to do that. So therefore, what is the consumption going to be of G-Cloud 10 going forward?
Stewart added that CCS has given themselves some “eye-watering” targets for G-Cloud 10, but adds that they haven’t been given the opportunity to fine tune the framework for the broader public sector, including local government (a trade-off). It has also been highlighted to me by a key observer that CCS’ Local Authority Software Applications framework is up for renewal this year, and that CCS is allowing 7 year call offs for software contracts, is limiting itself to just 20 suppliers per lot and is making no mandate around cloud - all of which is problematic.
On balance, it’s great that they’ve done it, but there are a number of challenges down the way. And as Iain points out, the legacy environment is becoming more entrenched, rather de-trenched.
Better policy needed
Patterson notes that CCS will always have an incentive to keep G-Cloud alive, as it takes a cut of all sales going through the framework (which is likely why they’re now looking to take it global). However, he notes that there is a lack of consistent policy in place to really make it the success it was originally intended to be. He notes:
“You’ve still got the targets that haven’t altered the 25% of spend with SMEs, but it doesn’t specify the spend through G-Cloud. So there’s some tidying up that needs to be done, because that the idea of the 25% benchmark was that it was meant to be through smaller companies sharing some of the workload. But what I’ve seen is you’ve got large SIs using SMEs to do window cleaning, landscaping outside, doing bits about training.
G-Cloud 10 has come out, but not everything has been wrapped up in the other policies across government that incentivise government to buy through that mechanism.
What I’m saying is that there probably needs to be a more designed, structured, cross-policy approach to how G-Cloud is supposed to be being used in government. I think that that’s got blurred now. I don’t see that there’s anything that’s driving or tying up the targets for consuming it through G-Cloud.
In addition, Patterson is noticing that G-Cloud is losing out as a result of the Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DoS) framework, which is meant to be used to procure “specialist resource to delivery agile software development”, according to CCS. Patterson adds:
What I am seeing is that some of the smaller organisations on G-Cloud are being broken down as far as their contracts are concerned and some of their people are being directly engaged directly through the DoS framework. So in other words, where SMEs are brought in as contractors, they’re looking to employ the contractors directly - and that’s not what G-Cloud 10 was designed for. DoS wasn’t meant to cannibalise things on G-Cloud.
Steward adds that there are a whole raft of policies out there that government “at best pays lip service to and at worst completely ignores”. She specifically points to the social value obligation placed on buyers, which should promote the use of UK companies and growth SMEs, but is largely ignored on G-Cloud. She notes:
There are policies for example around social value - we had the Social Value Act in 2012 - it’s a legal obligation on a buyer in the UK public sector to think about the broader societal and economic consequences of what they buy. G-Cloud 9 came out at the same time as the Technology Services 2 framework and if you were to search the term ‘social value’ throughout the documentation, it would show up everywhere. But if you searched it in the G-Cloud documentation, completely silent. We know that the digital economy is the fastest growing section of the UK economy, and it’s probably going to be one of the things that sees us through Brexit, so why are we not investing in UK companies?
In addition, Lindsay Smith, a key observer of G-Cloud and adviser to those supplying to the framework, recently highlighted that SMEs aren’t necessarily getting as much spend through G-Cloud as had initially been intended. Smith highlighted on Twitter:
Disruption being undone at a rate of knots
GDS also recently released a new blog post outlining changes it will be introducing regarding spend controls. Spend controls have been one of the key mechanisms used by the department to drive change from the centre, as well as to reduce costs.
However, it appears that GDS is adopting a more collaborative and softer approach to spend control management with departments. In the past where GDS spoke of ‘red lines’, it is now talking about a ‘pipeline approach’, where instead of looking at individual services or technology projects, it is going to work with departments to develop a 15 to 18 month forward look at all their commercial, digital and technology spend.
GDS claims that this will bring a number of benefits, which include enabling earlier engagement between departments and GDS, ensuring “consistent application of standards” and bringing in a more iterative, holistic approach.
However, Patterson raises concerns that these controls were a key mechanism for driving change and could be used to bolster G-Cloud. Instead, he argues, the centre is losing its grip and the status quo is resuming. Patterson says:
As far as I can tell, those controls disappeared since late 2016. There was no real control mechanism there. Where is the central database of all the initiatives that have gone through the control process? There’s no central database of it. Realistically I don’t see that the controls exist. If you don’t have the controls, if you don’t have the central aspects of having all the components to facilitate control in the one place, then you’ve got no real policing or understanding of where we go strategically.
It sounds pessimistic, but I can only see it getting worse for G-Cloud. I don’t see that the SMEs have a voice in this. They go on the Digital Marketplace because you have to be there to get work. But I don’t see anything will be strong enough to push anything down through G-Cloud, in fact I don’t see anything pushing it at all.
I think you’ve got a weakened centre and I think moving data into DCMS doesn’t support a strong centre. So, you’ve got a very broken Cabinet Office. It’s not joined up. I think the departments are going back to what they feel comfortable with and they feel comfortable with the existing landscape as was. The disruption that GDS introduced is being undone at a rate of knots.