The Digital Marketplace, and the frameworks it supports, are designed to help Whitehall procure in an agile way. But PublicTechnology finds the frequency and type of usage varies significantly across departments
At the outset of many public sector agile projects, the first step on the journey is a trip to the government’s Digital Marketplace.
The platform, initially called the CloudStore, was implemented back in 2012 as a means for public sector organisations to buy commodity cloud services from the newly launched G-Cloud framework. In 2016, its remit – and potential to enable transformation – was significantly expanded with the creation of the first Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework.
The buying vehicle, which launched its fourth iteration in October 2019, is a means for public bodies to obtain support in creating services – using a procurement model that is as agile as the development processes it supports.
Buyers are asked to describe a challenge to be addressed, rather than the product or service they expect will be its solution.
The tender process is structured, but descriptive – rather than prescriptive. Contract notices are based on three core sections: why the work is being done; problem to be solved; and who the users are they and what they need to do.
Alongside this description of their core requirements, public sector organisations can also provide information on where, when and for how long the work will take place, a budget range, details of how bids will be judged, and a breakdown of skills needed – both ‘essential’ and ‘nice to have’. Suppliers are encouraged to ask questions, which are answered publicly.
The focus is on short-term engagements to achieve clear outcomes – delivered by the supplier that is best placed to do so, rather than whichever is incumbent; a discovery phase could be supported by one firm, the alpha phase by a different company, and the beta and live phases by others still.
The creation of the Digital Marketplace and the DOS framework has given government the necessary platforms and routes to support service-design projects that are both procured and developed in an agile way.
But simply implementing these mechanisms is no guarantee that they will be utilised, and research conducted by PublicTechnology indicates that usage of the marketplace varies greatly across departments.
Some departments are posting digital outcomes opportunities as frequently as several times a month while, for others – perhaps those who are locked into existing arrangements or, alternatively, those feel they have enough capability in house – it is barely an annual occurrence.
The Digital Marketplace maintains a publicly-available database of historical contract notices. At time of writing, there is information on tenders for 1,812 digital outcomes that have taken place since the very first deals awarded through the DOS framework back in spring 2016, right up to opportunities that closed earlier this month.
Central government accounts for well over half of these contracts – the biggest of which was worth £36m of taxpayers’ money, and the smallest of which was just one ten-thousandth of that amount: £3,600.
Below is a breakdown and profile of the Digital Marketplace’s most frequent Whitehall customers, as well as those that visit less often. Our research relates solely to digital outcomes opportunities, rather than digital specialists – which is, effectively, a means for public-sector entities to bring in short-term external contractors.
1. Home Office – 158 digital outcomes
Over the last four years, the Home Office has been by far the biggest user of government’s digital outcomes platform. The department and its core executive agencies and arm’s-length bodies have concluded more than 150 buying processes. This equates to a little more than one every 10 days.
Perhaps it is no surprise; the digital transformation of the UK’s borders and immigration system was a huge and endlessly complex task even before the Brexit referendum – which took place four months after the launch of Digital Outcomes and Specialists.
The Home Office’s single biggest contract awarded through the framework – a £23.5m, two-year deal with Deloitte to support the construction of “digital customer journeys” – gives an insight into the scale and complexity of some of the department’s challenges.
“The immigration IT portfolio is delivering around 70 projects which impact over 20,000 Home Office staff and millions of customers worldwide,” the department said. “We are looking for an agile partner to deliver a range of internal and public-facing digital immigration services from discovery to live.”
Although, clearly, the department chose to couple itself to a big professional services firm for this large overarching engagement, this has not prevented it from continuing to seek support for the delivery of scores of other individual outcomes, related to both internal and external services.
Two contracts awarded shortly after each other last year serve as good representative examples of the breadth of work and supply base of the Home Office – and the growing propensity to work in an agile, sprint-focused way.
In September, UK SME Caution Your Blast won a £226,600 contract for a three-month programme of work to take from alpha to beta a project to develop standardised digital components that could be used by those seeking consular services at any UK consulate around the world. The London-based firm had been awarded won a similar short-term deal to assist the discovery phase.
Two months later, the department floated another three-month engagement, this time in search of “a partner to conduct a comprehensive inventory of the systems being used across the Home Office”.
The ‘problem to solved’ in this case was that “information about the makeup and characteristics of the existing IT estate is currently stored in a fragmented and inconsistent manner… [and] it is very difficult to plan and deliver initiatives to drive the desired changes” across the department.
The contract was ultimately won by a large, US-based global software consultancy – ThoughtWorks, which scooped a £233,100 deal.
The Home Office seems set to remain a frequent user of the marketplace with 10 opportunities ‘awaiting outcome’ at time of writing.
2. Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces – 133 digital outcomes
For many people, the Ministry of Defence might not be among the first names that spring to mind when asked to come up with examples of government institutions that have come to embody the kind of agile principles – flexibility, transparency, destigmatisation of failure – not typically associated with Whitehall.
But the department has been an enthusiastic seeker of digital outcomes, for both itself and the Armed Forces whose work it supports. Since 2016, the MoD has posted about 100 digital outcomes opportunities, with the three armed forces – principally the Army – collectively posting another 30.
Indeed, two of the biggest deals in the history of the buying platform were awarded – to SMEs – by the Army and Navy.
In the latter case, earlier this year the Nelson programme, which “leads digital transformation delivery within the Navy”, commenced a two-year £10m plan to “develop digital and data products and user-centred design services”. It will be supported by agile consultancy Digi2al.
The Army, meanwhile, is already a year into a similar engagement in which its own in-house software development unit IAS to maintain and improve an array of 72 existing digital services and build new ones, where required. That deal, also worth £10m, was won by Swindon-based Oracle specialist Monitor IS.
3. Department for Education – 94 digital outcomes
The Department for Education is in the midst of a wider long-term journey of transformation “from a policy to a delivery” organisation.
A key part of this new remit is the design and delivery of a range of new digital services for use by all stakeholders in the UK education system.
In designing these services, the DfE has made frequent use of the Digital Marketplace, with the department and its agencies having concluded almost 100 digital outcomes processes in the last four years.
Even the current challenges faced by government are clearly no barrier to the department continuing its transformation work, with seven opportunities published so far this month – five of which are still open for bids.
Among the projects planned by the DfE for the coming months are several that speak to the department’s increasing delivery workload.
The Teacher Services Programme has seen the DfE asked to build a number of digital services to support the government’s ambition of improving its recruitment and retention of teachers. The department recently posted a £2.5m opportunity for a two-year programme of work to improve or build three core platforms: a Get Into Teaching service targeted at potential recruits to the profession; an online platform to allow existing teachers to claim payments; and an internal service to improve the government’s collection and use of trainee teacher data.
4. Department for Transport – 89 digital outcomes
Two of the Department for Transport’s arm’s-length bodies – the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency – have been at the forefront of the next stage of government digital transformation: the creation of end-to-end services.
Such services take as their starting point a citizen’s ultimate objective, such as starting a business or settling the affairs of a loved one who has died, and then build backwards from there to create a comprehensive step-by-step journey, with clear instruction and links to all relevant information and services. And, crucially, no indication to users that government is anything other than a single, cohesive entity.
The DVLA and DVSA – whose digital ambitions you can read more about later in the week – collaborated to create the Learn to drive a car service, one of the first examples of the new wave of end-to-end service design. Many more have followed, and the ambition is to ultimately offer the public at least 400 such services.
Among the 89 outcomes sought by the DfT and its agencies since 2016 are a range of other digital service innovations.
The department also understands the importance of obtaining the necessary buy-in and understanding from non-digital professionals, and earlier this year launched a 10-week discovery programme – supported by BJSS – designed to improve the relationship between its digital professionals and their colleagues in other disciplines.
“Professions including policy, statistical and economists are commissioning digital delivery with inconsistent engagement from the department’s digital service,” the DfT said. “Engagements are reactive, limited in scope with informal governance. The digital service wants to understand the user need and opportunity to provide advice and guidance in the digitisation of services that will underpin and enable the digitalisation of the transport system.”
5. Cabinet Office – 86 digital outcomes, including 39 from GDS
The Government Digital Service’s frequent use of the Digital Marketplace shows that even possessing a wealth of in-house expertise in coding, research and project-management does not mean that external skills and resources are not sometimes needed to deliver outcomes.
GDS has published digital outcomes opportunities at a rate of almost one a month since 2016, and the wider Cabinet Office and its various agencies and functions have concluded a total of 86 processes.
The construction of the Global Digital Marketplace has been the subject of 11 separate outcomes opportunities, including five individual discovery projects dedicated to researching issues such as government structures and procurement rules around the world. These five deals were won by five separate SMEs: Spend Network; Development Gateway; dxw; Rainmaker Solutions; and Caution Your Blast.
But, in the last year or so, GDS has also been criticised by some agile specialists for growing instances of so-called ‘bench’ agreements, in which companies are retained to provide personnel and resources at short notice in support of projects and outcomes that are yet to be specified. Such arrangements are typically prohibitive for smaller players, and lack clear, upfront deliverables.
The digital agency’s Brexit work saw three such deals – each worth an estimated £1m – awarded to a trio of large consultancies: Cognizant; PA Consulting; and Deloitte.
The ongoing £1bn-plus transformation programme of the UK courts system – a cornerstone of which is increasing digitisation of processes – was the main contributor to the 85 digital outcomes sought by the Ministry of Justice since 2016. Some 50 of these were posted by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
Similarly, 25 opportunities from NHS Digital and a further 25 from NHS England and other national health-service bodies represented the majority of the 71 outcomes sought by the Department of Health and Social Care. A £3m discovery programme of work in which Public Health England worked with BJSS to “apply a strategic approach to service design and delivery” across a reform of screening processed was among the significant health-related projects.
With 69 outcomes opportunities, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was the only other department to pass the 50 mark. Among its notable projects was a £1m engagement with dxw on “delivering two new digital services to improve behaviour and performance of large businesses payment and promote improving the culture of payment practice”.
Two of government’s largest entities – HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions – are comparatively infrequent users of the Digital Marketplace, with 29 and 28 outcomes sought, respectively.
But they are big spenders. The DWP signed the joint biggest ever outcomes contract, a £36m deal awarded to Tata Consultancy Services to help deliver and support the department’s array of services related to child maintenance and other payments for parents. HMRC, meanwhile, is responsible for three of the top five largest contracts: a £25m deal won by Mercator IT Solutions to support a wide-ranging programme of developing self-service tax offerings; and a £20m service-integration project delivered by People Source Consulting.
Although, compared to other ministries, the Department for International Trade is small and young, it has shown an early appetite for agile processes, having sought 21 digital outcomes since 2016. This is the same number as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on 19, a little ahead of the Office for National Statistics with 17.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ tally of eight – equating to one every six months – may seem low, but one of those was the appointment of Kainos Software as the organisation’s “digital transformation partner”. The £36m deal to help Defra “transform its public service delivery in a digital and agile manner” is the joint biggest ever awarded through the DOS framework.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has sought five outcomes since 2016, one more than the Department for International Development.
Neither HM Treasury nor the Prime Minister’s Office have published any opportunities.