Councils urged to work together to challenge big vendors

Local government digital officers have said that councils need to be more honest about poor products from big suppliers and work together to demand change.

Local authorities need to pull in the same direction to change market forces – Photo credit: Flickr, toffehoff

According to Matthew Cain, head of digital at Buckinghamshire County Council, as single bodies, local authorities – especially smaller ones – “don’t have serious market power” to force the big suppliers to make changes.

“The more we can stand together, and say, ‘This isn’t working for us and we expect change’, the better,” he told a summit of digital leaders in London last week. “Could we as Buckinghamshire do this [on our own]? Not a chance, but I think that together we could.”

Indicating that local government digital teams were starting to demand more from their suppliers, Cain said that councils should be dealing with big vendors differently.

“The first part is honesty,” he said, adding that this should start by having open discussions within the team about the products they use.

“It’s about having honest conversations, saying, ‘We know that [this product] is a piece of crap’,” he said.

This also means acknowledging that there might not be a change available immediately, but that you are going to work on it.

For instance, Cain said, being able to say that a particular product “isn’t good enough” and that – although you recognise why you have to keep it at the moment – “unless it changes it won’t be a part of our medium-term future”.

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In addition, Cain said that councils should work better together to create the market forces that will make suppliers change what they are offering.

Part of this is showing that there “is a plan B” – until now local authorities have outsourced large amounts of work, and those suppliers know there aren’t any other options for councils. “We haven’t had anywhere else to turn,” Cain said. “But the more we can work together to show we’ve got our own future, the more pressure we can put on those suppliers.”

However, speaking to PublicTechnology, Andy Theedom, local government market director for the large supplier Capita – who was not at the event – said that, although it would be easier to provide services if all customers had very similar needs “it’s not always that simple”.

He said: “The needs of a small district council will never be the same as those of a big metropolitan city council, and we need to consider that. Where customers do band together…we’re able to provide a service that meets all of their needs and can do so at a scale that is as cost-effective as possible.”

Meanwhile, Tina Whitley, executive director for government and housing solutions at Northgate Public Services, said that her company found that “councils generally give consistent and clear feedback”.

She added: “It could hugely benefit councils if they worked collaboratively and took a more co-ordinated approach. This could create multiple benefits in terms of shared best practices and efficiencies.”

Whitley also noted changes in the way that councils were interacting with her company, indicating that local authorities were already expecting more from their suppliers.

“Local government clients are looking for swift results over shorter time frames,” she said. “Performance based contracts are becoming more common and depend upon achievement of results and collaboration between all parties. Commerciality and cost of delivery is higher up the agenda than it has been before.”

This echoed comments made at the summit, where speakers noted that changes in procurement processes, collaboration and working styles are having an effect on the market.

The increased adoption of agile working, for instance, offers councils more options for who they choose to work with – they no longer procure whole service chains, and can instead choose smaller products or services from a range of vendors. This can put pressure on the big suppliers to make sure they bring in people with the right skill-sets.

“We can go in two directions,” said Cain. “We can use the big suppliers, where there’s a chance they might recruit great devs; or we can go to SMEs who will support great devs. The ability to think very big and very small changes the market.”

This also means that councils have to change their way of thinking, with Paul Ward, the head of ICT strategy, systems and development for Coventry City Council, saying they had to get used to working differently.

“You can’t go to a supplier and get an off-the-shelf solution,” said Ward. “You won’t be able to go to the big five and get your own version of this system. You’ll need to spend the time – and it could be significant time – to work with that supplier in a very agile way.”

But both Ward and Collingwood-Richardson, head of product delivery for the Universal Credit programme at the Department for Work and Pensions, say things are improving.

Suppliers “are getting way better” Collingwood-Richardson told the summit. Around three years ago, the sector was at a “tipping point”, she said.

“I threw out a couple of pitches. That was a milestone moment, where we thought, actually they’re just not good enough anymore,” she said. “Now there’s a far more diverse supplier base.”


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