G-Cloud 4 promises even greater access to commodity, cloud-based services with 1,183 suppliers and over 13,000 services. But is the latest incarnation of G-Cloud meeting its remit?
G-Cloud was conceived as a way to break down the barriers that prevent small and medium sized (SMB) IT suppliers from competing with the incumbents. It aimed to provide a channel for government bodies to access IT services, enabling government to make cost savings but also to benefit from more innovative, flexible solutions. Yet old buying habits die-hard and debate continues over whether G-Cloud has really been successful in levelling the playing field.
There is little doubt the ethos of the G-Cloud has permeated through to its suppliers. When the Cloudstore online search facility used to browse and select services ‘off-the-shelf’ suffered some initial teething problems in November, suppliers rallied round and supported a ‘kill’ policy to take down the service. It was felt the decision would both enable the search issue to be fully rectified and prevent some suppliers from being unfairly discriminated against, given that the search facility was only failing to return some results.
Aside from this temporary suspension of service, G4 offers the promise of a smoother selection process. It differs from its G-Cloud predecessors in terms of structure and improvements to the accreditiation process. Its absorption into the Government Procurement Service (GPS) has provided a welcome boost to resources, with support information now stored at GOV.UK, the new centralised government website, and improvements have been made to the Cloudstore portal to ease navigation. There is also now an improved Invitation to Tender process (ITT), including clearer instructions on how to access suppliers, and the use of two tender submission processes which will help streamline the exchange of services.
The changes implemented in G4 are to be commended and the G-Cloud has achieved some real success in achieving its primary objective. However, beneath the shiny veneer of G-Cloud 4, there remain issues. G-Cloud spend (covering Gi, Gii and Giii) totalled £44.7 million as of the end of August 2013; a steady increase but there is still work to be done if the government is to achieve the £120 million by 2014/15 previously predicted by ex-GDS Programme Director, Denise McDonagh. Of the 832 suppliers to the Cloudstore, an impressive 83% are SMEs. Yet only 55.3% of total sales by value and 63.4% by number were awarded to SMBs, indicating that established large suppliers are still taking almost half the pot.
Why, despite the best intentions of the G-Cloud, are the big players still muscling in on contracts? Of course, public sector organisations are notoriously habitual and risk averse, preferring to select known and trusted suppliers: an approach that can be both expensive and stifle innovation, which is why the government decreed a mandatory ‘Cloud first’ policy back in May 2013. The G-Cloud sought to provide the reassurance and access necessary to connect with vetted SMB suppliers. But the open marketplace concept at the heart of the Cloudstore initiative has been compromised. Some of the largest suppliers are using SMB partners as little more than shopfronts to deliver services. Moreover, those same suppliers can afford to sell low with loss-leading services to get their foot in the door.
The protracted tender process has also been a sticking point for SMBs. Hopefully, the changes incorporated in G4 will address this as there are two key improvements under the Agile Development Framework that will make it easier for suppliers to ensure they are compliant. The first will see the use of the GPS eSourcing suite to handle responses to mandatory questions that form part of procurement regulations, while the second will see the GDS Service Submission Portal used for the mandatory upload of documents to the Cloudstore, removing the risk of suppliers being non-compliant. These are certainly steps in the right direction, given that the long procurement processes used in the past tied-up valuable SMB resources.
A major issue that has yet to be addressed is high-level access of government departments, public sector organisations and suppliers to the Public Sector Network (PSN). The PSN has been developed as part of the Governments ICT Strategy with the aim of reducing the cost of communications across the UK government and enabling joined-up and shared public services. The PSN will see the creation of a single logical network, which will act as an assured network over which government can safely share services (including G-Cloud services) to collaborate more effectively and efficiently.
Suppliers of services will be able to offer accredited services to the PSN community via the network of networks model. But many SMBs are currently locked out of the PSN, while their larger counterparts already have access via its precursor, the Government Secure Intranet (GSI). To gain access requires jumping through a great many hoops. Those selling PSN available services and those seeking formal accreditation via the RMARD process must negotiate a complex range of processes and mandatory compliance, codes and accreditation requirements before being admitted to the community.
Moving to the PSN will place further demands on resources, unless the SMB seeks assistance from a third party. Adopting a PSN Onboarding strategy can provide a fixed cost solution with Gap Analysis to understand the areas that need further focus to meet the PSN Code and mandatory requirements, a roadmap to achieve successful authorisation and the generation of evidence to support the process for connectivity and/or accreditation of services. Armed with this information, the organisation can then ensure other strategies are compliant and manage costs. In this way, suppliers are assisting other suppliers to achieve PSN compliance cost effectively.
The Government’s ambitious but laudable aim is for 25% of contracts to go to the SMB sector by 2015. Achieving this will require further advances and changes to be made, preferably before G5. Deliverance mechanisms will need to become more transparent; HMG will need to look at the quality of controls around the delivery of awarded contracts as well as price in order to prevent large suppliers pricing SMBs out of the market; and, SMBs will need assistance to overcome procurement obstacles, and to get on to the PSN, in order to compete against large suppliers.
G-Cloud has flattened the landscape for providing services to HMG but it can only realise its full potential if we address these issues. Any organisation willing to go through the application process and comply with the requirements now has a chance of winning contracts. But the scales are still weighted. The G-Cloud must continue to evolve and SMBs assist one another, particularly with negotiating the PSN, for this promising system to flourish.
Louise T. Dunne is Managing Director of data, ICT and security consultancy Auriga (www.aurigaconsulting.com), a G-Cloud supplier with additional expertise in PSN Onboarding. Louise can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.