Government as a Platform can help SMEs compete with larger enterprises for public contracts, says Pedro Paulo.
With government spending and the awarding of contracts to the private sector coming under intense scrutiny, new ideas about the provision and administration of government services and products have been aired.
Election time has always been a key period for exaggerated arguments, used for political point scoring. However, cutting through the bluster and rhetoric, we can see the key points that the government and civil service identify as problematic and in need of addressing.
This year, technology is emerging as a key topic and, along with it, a keen interest in how the government manages and uses its data.
The knock-on impact of this is that there is a reinvigorated focus on who the government works with to supply its technology services, and how those contracts are managed.
In particular, the familiar debate about government spending within the small business sector has come to the fore, with one of the key topics being the perceived inequality in the awarding of contracts between larger enterprises and SMEs.
The government has recently come under fire from those closest to its own procurement processes with the former chief of its G-Cloud programme Chris Chant claiming that Whitehall lacks the intent to hit its own target of 25 per cent spending with SMEs.
The sentiment was seconded by others in high profile including government digital director Mike Bracken and government CTO Liam Maxwell.
Although there have been some shifts in thinking regarding its procurement processes, the government has still not hit its targets.
A new model of providing Government services could, however, be a leap forward in helping SMEs compete in the public sector; that of Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP).
Following the lead in technology circles of labelling everything X-as-a-X, the model will see the Government shift from one where it buys packaged services, to one where it enables them.
GaaP involves the Government’s creation of an Application Programming Interface (API) for each new digital service, and then opening these to suppliers for use.
IDC government insights analyst Max Claps identifies the Gov.uk Verify programme as a prime example, summing up the programme as “instead of a single government database, certified companies (banks, telcos, etc.) will verify user identity to grant access to GOV.UK.”
According to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the first common platforms will be for booking appointments, payments and messaging, with approximately another 26 areas where the system can be implemented identified.
With the Government’s Digital Services Framework heading towards its third procurement round, one said to be introducing serious changes to the procurement process, the sooner smaller businesses are empowered to compete for government contracts the better.
There are talented and experienced procurement professionals in government driving reform who recognise the benefits of diversifying the supplier base and making the process friendlier to smaller suppliers. The benefits of a GaaP-based system for digital services can be felt on both the government and supplier sides.
SMEs can take advantage of the new paradigm through providing discrete services to public bodies at all levels, founded on a centralised, open API.
When developing the services that will use the APIs, the suppliers will no longer need to build from scratch, reducing the complexity of the project and the associated cost.
On the public sector side, as the core of the service is being retained within government ownership, there is no need to engage larger enterprises for an end-to-end solution, locking out smaller companies from competition.
It is hoped that this common platform model will cut costs associated with duplicated services through the network (perhaps due to non-interoperable vendor solutions by individual purchasing authorities), enable clear oversight into what data is being used and if it is being used properly, and manage overall supplier insight as each will be mapped to a defined and centralised API.
Competition wise, this reduces the risk of an oligopolistic supplier base emerging, thus reducing dependency on certain private suppliers and leaving the government freer to negotiate price and terms.
Overall, by essentially helping private sector suppliers help themselves in bidding for government contracts, the idea of GaaP benefits both sides of the buy-sell contract.
It is a complex idea, and one that will not succeed as planned without fundamental change in how the government views procurement.
Keen management and oversight of the supplier base, a commitment to maximising the benefits of such an agile system, and the willingness to embrace the procurement technology available that can enable this shift are the key elements to making this happen. With political and civil pressure at an all-time high, this is one area in which the Crown Commercial Service has to show real results.
Taking care of the GaaP should deliver them.
Pedro Paulo, is chief executive of supplier Gatewit