UK gov comes to Think Cloud to praise not bury G-Cloud

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 9, 2015
Summary:
At today's Think Cloud event, civil servants sought to allay concerns that some are trying to kill off the UK government's G-Cloud procurement program

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

I love G-Cloud ... G-Cloud is a great innovation. It's brilliant.

With this public declaration of support, Sarah Hurrell, commercial director of technology at the UK government's procurement office, Crown Commercial Service, sought to reassure a skeptical audience at today's Think Cloud for Government conference in London. Some openly suspect her department of wanting to bury G-Cloud, the innovative public sector cloud procurement framework that celebrates its third birthday this week.

Tony Singleton, director of G-Cloud and the digital commercial programme at the Government Digital Service, was equally emphatic that rumors of G-Cloud's demise are unfounded:

Read the headline — and the small print. We're not trying to sweep G-Cloud under the carpet.

He trotted out a cavalcade of statistics that speak to G-Cloud's continued success as a fast-track route for public sector buyers to acquire off-the-shelf cloud services:

  • The average time to obtain a cloud service via G-Cloud is 18 days as opposed to 171 days using the conventional OJEU procurement process.
  • The number of suppliers on the framework has tripled to 455 while the number of buyers is up from 265 to 396.
  • The supplier base has widened to include many small and midsized businesses, drawn from across the UK.
  • Monthly sales through G-Cloud have jumped from £7.4 million ($11m) to above £35 million ($53m) — a later speaker described the initiative as "the UK's most successful technology startup."

Worried proponents

Tony Singleton, G-Cloud director, GDS
Tony Singleton, GDS

But at the same time, both Singleton and Hurrell defended the moves that have worried so many proponents of G-Cloud. They explained their reasons for retiring the former CloudStore to be subsumed into the broader Digital Marketplace. They set out their rationale for the unpopular removal of agile development services from G-Cloud into the less SME-friendly Digital Services framework. And there was no mention of the controversial retirement of the @G_Cloud_UK Twitter handle in favor of the far less catchy @GOVUKdigimkt.

Meanwhile, Hurrell's love for G-Cloud had come with a 'but' attached to it:

In industry, G-Cloud has become a brand name, and it's a brand about working with SMEs.

I love G-Cloud but there are other ways to sell to government as well ... I want to make sure we use the right type of business for the right services.

She explained that work was continuing to evolve the Digital Services Framework (DSF) that shares the new Digital Marketplace with G-Cloud. Its next iteration later this year would bring "revolutionary change," and it was important to look at what was being achieved over time, she said.

You should see the red tape that has been cut away. We've been culling and cutting but some times we have to do the 80:20 rule and get things out [on time].

This is not 'Computer says no' and us being awkward. We have to work in a regulated environment.

EU obstructions

Public procurement in the UK is subject to EU-wide rules that require open tenders and would expose the framework to legal challenge if they were ignored, she pointed out. "Substantial changes" are on the way this year that will bring more flexibility to frameworks like G-Cloud and DSF but she admitted that one of the achievements of G-Cloud was how it circumvented some of the most obstructive EU requirements:

G-Cloud was very good at getting round a lot of the EU regulations and that is why we like G-Cloud.

The transfer of agile development services out of G-Cloud into DSF was a sore point raised in a question put directly to Hurrell by Harry Metcalfe, Director at supplier DXW, who recently launched a campaign for reform of DSF along G-Cloud lines.

It seems strange instead of iterating we've gone off in completely this other direction," he complained.

Support for his plea to keep agile services within G-Cloud came later in the morning from Stephen Allott, SME Crown Representative at the Cabinet Office, who suggested the transfer to DSF had been encouraged by suppliers who were keen to protect their own patch. His view contradicted the position taken earlier by his Cabinet Office colleagues:

To tidy this up once and for all we should have an agile development framework that operates exactly as the other G-Cloud lots do, and be done with it.

My take

Whenever I'm trying to parse what government departments are up to, I cast my mind back to half-remembered episodes of the 80s sitcom Yes, Minister and its follow-up Yes, Prime Minister. For those unfamiliar with this TV classic, it's a more genteel but equally biting portrayal of the workings of government as the more modern The Thick of It.

It's clear that G-Cloud is at a crossroads and I suspect that its survival is tied up as much with the career aspirations of people in various departments as it is with what's in the best interests of the country.

Between now and the forthcoming general election in May, when it's widely expected that the current coalition government will be replaced by another of a different complexion, it's inevitable that civil servants will be wondering what steer they will get from their new political masters in the summer.

Meanwhile, vested interests — frustrated by the determination of current Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and his team to attack the stranglehold of so-called oligopoly suppliers on government — are perhaps fighting a rearguard campaign to restore some of the favorable treatment they may feel they've lost out on.

It all reminds me of a Yes, Prime Minister sketch in which the titular character surprises his wife with the complaint that civil servants are the real government and that politicians are just "the opposition," with little power to effect lasting change. Of course it's not just the civil service but also the oligopoly and every other component of the establishment. They will always resist change and the struggle to effect change is never-ending.

Fortunately G-Cloud still has strong grassroots support and maybe in this case it will prove stronger than "the opposition." We shall see.

Disclosure: The author acts as voluntary chair of EuroCloud UK, which recently established a working group to champion the UK cloud industry's perspective on G-Cloud.

Image credit: © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com.

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