What the hell is going on with the UK government's Digital Services Framework?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 30, 2014
Summary:
The Cabinet Office's silence speaks volumes

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Following Stuart's excellent special report into the UK government's G-Cloud, which addressed a number of recent concerns about a lack of momentum behind the framework, it occurred to me that we have also heard very little about the government's Digital Services Framework. Unlike the G-Cloud, which aims to provide the public sector with pre-approved off the shelf commodity software, the Digital Services Framework is a catalogue of suppliers, mostly made up of SMEs, that have been enlisted to help departments build highly customised digital products.

When I sat down with government CTO Liam Maxwell a few months ago, he told me that the Digital Services Framework – which was released in November last year and was hailed as a key pillar of Whitehall's digital agenda – is one of three critical tools to help departments deliver innovative, digital products.

He said that the framework should be used alongside the Government Digital Service's consulting services and internal departmental capabilities to bring in any external technology or skills that are not available in-house. I remember at the time thinking that we had heard very little about the framework since its launch, and so I asked Maxwell what the spend figures were looking like –  unfortunately he said that he couldn't recall the numbers, but he also assured me that people were buying.

However, given diginomica last week prompted some much needed debate about the G-Cloud, I decided to ask the Cabinet Office what was going on with the Digital Services Framework. I put the following questions to the press office:

  • How many iterations has the DSF been through since it first launched?
  • How many suppliers are on there now?
  • What is the total spend through the DSF to date?
  • How many purchases make up this total spend?

Selective response

After waiting a few days for answers to what I thought were quite simple questions, I decided to do some chasing and fired off another email to the press team. Thankfully the next day I finally got a response:

“The first Digital Services framework was awarded in November 2013 and we are receiving good levels of interest. The intention is to refresh the framework every six to 12 months to ensure access to the latest innovations and a widening range of suppliers. There are currently 175 suppliers, of which 83% are SMEs.”

When I read the response I had to laugh. Okay, so they have kind of answered my question about how many iterations the framework has

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been through and they have answered my question about the number of suppliers - but there isn't even a reference to the spend and purchase questions. Not even an acknowledgement on their behalf that they won't be answering the questions.

Instead of placating me, the Cabinet Office's silence has got me even more concerned than I was initially. This is mostly because the G-Cloud's spend figures are banded about constantly by government, in fact the Government Digital Service has even spent time building some useful online tools that help anyone interested to measure the spend using a number of metrics. I applaud them for this, but would this be the case if spend on the G-Cloud was declining instead of exponentially increasing?

This government, and in particular Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, have gone on and on and on about the benefits of transparency, but it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that they are only transparent when it suits them. Why not release the Digital Services Framework spend figures? I would put money on it being because they are disappointing. The Cabinet Office said when the framework launched that it expected spend via the framework to reach £40 million within the first nine months and I would bet that the current figure is quite a bit behind this.

Yes, I am making a lot of assumptions here and am jumping to conclusions without any hard facts, but my experience tells me that when the government is selective on an issue, it is because they are hiding something. However, what's annoying is that there is no reason for the information not to be in the public domain, and because of the Cabinet Office trying to block me via the more direct channels, I have had to put in a Freedom of Information request to get hold of the data. I'm hoping this comes back with what I am after, but I will have to wait up to 20 working days for an answer.

Another interesting point to note from the Cabinet Office's response is that the number of suppliers on the framework has dropped in the seven months since its launch. When it was announced, the Digital Services Framework had 183 suppliers, 84 percent of which were SMEs. So, eight suppliers have since disappeared – I wonder why?

Verdict

  • I'll update with a new post when I get the information I've requested via the FOI – let's just hope that they don't come back with a 'commercially sensitive' block, which would be completely ridiculous.
  • I hope I am looking too much into this, but I doubt it.