The truth about what's wrong with UK government's Digital Services Framework

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 28, 2014
Summary:
The government has finally come clean about how much spend has been made via the framework, but it still isn't being open about the problems

Some of you may recall that about a month ago I posted a story asking the question: what the hell is going on with the UK government's Digital Services

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Framework? The story was in response to some vague answers I received from the Cabinet Office about questions I had regarding how the framework was progressing e.g. how much has been spent, how many purchases have been made, etc. You can read the post yourself for some background, but essentially it came across to me that the government was keeping quiet on the figures because it was trying to hide something.

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. It is a key part of the government's strategy for getting Whitehall department's the right skills and services they need to create agile, digital products for public services.

As I'd hoped, the story prompted some debate in government circles and I was contacted by someone in Chi Onwurah's team, who said that they had been trying to find out what was going on too. For those who don't know, Onwurah is the MP for Newcastle and will be the person to replace current Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, if Labour wins the next general election in 2015. Anyway, Onwurah's team highlighted to me that she had asked a parliamentary question about spend via the framework and had received the following response:

“Prior to the last general election there was no central monitoring of spend with SMEs. Various bureaucratic procurement practices mitigated against SMEs and resulted in a playing field which was biased against SMEs. The Digital Services framework went live in November 2013. 83% of the suppliers are SMEs. Of the nine competitions so far awarded five have gone to SMEs—this is 30% by value.”

Okay, so this provided me with a bit more detail (the number of competitions awarded so far), but still no clear answer on how much has actually been spent via the framework. And to be fair to the Cabinet Office press office, after reading my initial post, they came back with the same information. However, I still wasn't satisfied with this – given that this government harps on about the importance of openness and transparency A LOT – and so I put in a Freedom of Information request to see if that brought back any more detail.

Now, before I go on, I just want to say that I'm absolutely 100% behind the idea of the Digital Services Framework and the capabilities it could bring to the UK government. It's an essential tool and one that I'm sure will be useful in the future. I would also like to add that the following criticism of the government's selective openness and transparency doesn't apply to everyone working in the Cabinet Office or the Government Digital Service – some people I have met, some people very high up the chain, are just as keen as I am to have an open discussion about where things are going wrong and what can be improved, and I applaud them for that.

The results...

My Freedom of Information request was submitted to the Cabinet Office on the 29th April and according to the rules governing the process, I would expect a response within 20 working days. It is now the 29th May and I am pleased to say that I have received a response – 20 working days after I submitted it if you don't include the 29th, 21 days if you do, but I'm not going to split hairs. The results landed in my inbox at 11.35am GMT this morning, a full half an hour before I received another notification email informing me that the Government Digital Service has released a new blog about....guess what...the Digital Services Framework spend figures. Now I'm not even going to pretend that this might be a coincidence, this is PR working at its best, and I kind of admire them for being so savvy. It's amazing what government can do when it wants to, right? So basically my FoI request has backed them into a corner and instead of being open and honest from the beginning and rolling with the punches, they've been forced into a narrative about the framework. Cool.

Anyway, so the Digital Services Framework launched on 12th November last year (just over six months ago) and to date there has been £2.3 million worth of deals done, 30 percent of which have gone to SMEs. Singleton's blog doesn't give much more detail than that, but my FoI request does, so here's the full results:

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The above chart lists the nine deals that we knew about, three of which have either gone to the Government Digital Service or the Cabinet Office. I can also tell you that just £311,921 has been invoiced from suppliers so far. Now, when the framework launched we were told that the government expected approximately £40 million worth of spend in the first nine months – and yes, we are still about two and a half months away from that date, but unless something drastic is about to happen, I think it's safe to say that that target will be missed by quite a long shot. As I expected.

I also just want to pre-empt an argument that I think may arise as a result of this article. I half expect the government PR spin doctors to come back and say that compared to the G-Cloud's spend, which just totalled about £6 million in the first year, the Digital Services Framework isn't too far behind. However, that's just not a fair comparison. That £6 million figure was made up of about 200 purchases, which reflects the nature of the G-Cloud – lower priced, commodity goods. However, if we look at the spend so far via the Digital Services Framework, it's easy to see that when stuff is being bought it isn't cheap or a commodity. Departments are paying for services that require specialist skills and expertise, which typically comes at a higher price. Although they are often lumped together, you can't really compare the two.

So what went wrong?

The Government Digital Services blog is, as expected, a rose-tinted version of the problems surrounding the Digital Services Framework as it currently stands. To their credit it does admit that it needs improvement and confirms that that the Government Digital Service is signing off requirements for the second iteration of the framework, but little detail was revealed. Here are some of the key comments:

“Creating a large pool of quality suppliers with the right capabilities is part of the solution. We want to make sure there is a level playing field to select from that encourages both larger and smaller businesses to be involved and have a fair chance at winning work.

“We also need to help buyers really understand what they are delivering and what they need to do differently to achieve this. It’s not just about educating them on new technologies, working methods and a process that is driven by their user needs, but about helping them to be able to go out and easily find suppliers as and when they need. This could either be for complete delivery teams or individual roles to join existing teams.”

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So here's the truth. From what I'm told, the suppliers on the framework aren't really the problem at this point. If you look at the suppliers currently listed, there is a good mix of companies that should fulfil the needs of the departments that want to get on with developing their digital projects. However, as I understand it, the framework hasn't worked as well as expected.

The main problem is with purchasing. Buyers are finding it too difficult, too complex and too lengthy a process to buy from the Digital Services Framework and so they are going elsewhere. I've been told that this is because, unlike the G-Cloud that goes through a rigorous process of pre-selecting and vetting suppliers to make purchasing easy for buyers, the Crown Commercial Service decided to add a bunch of requirements to the Digital Services Framework that makes the buying experience similar to the pain of going through another complex OJEU process. It put buyers off and is a far cry from the work that was put in to make the G-Cloud as simple as possible.

As far as I understand it, the Digital Services Framework will continue to be a key pillar of the government's digital agenda, but we can probably expect it to change shape significantly going forward as it is reworked to make it useful for departments. Good news for buyers!

Verdict

  • As I said before, I am totally behind the Digital Services Framework and what it is trying to achieve. I think it's an essential part in helping transform government departments and in theory is a really excellent idea. However, it's delivery hasn't been as well executed as it's sister framework, the G-Cloud, and as a result buyers have been put off from using it.
  • This really isn't a piece that sets out to destroy the good work of GDS or the Digital Services Framework – it just means that the first attempt didn't work out as expected and stuff needs to be done. So what? This is how technology projects should operate - fail quick, learn from your mistakes, move on. I know a lot of publications may run with some negative headlines, but I genuinely do think if the Cabinet Office and GDS gave us the full picture, an honest one, a lot of us will paint the full picture for them.
  • It's obvious why I want the government to be as open and transparent as it says it is – it makes for good story telling. However, there's a benefit for them too. There are far more intelligent people out there than me that may now read this and be able to offer some constructive advice for the Digital Services Framework 2.0.
  • Let's hope it's an easier process next time round!