Flawed framework

Written by Harry Metcalfe on 12 February 2015 in Opinion
Opinion

Harry Metcalfe on what is driving the groundswell of opinion among SMEs that the Digital Services Framework is deeply flawed.

I have spent the last couple of weeks talking, tweeting and meeting about Government’s approach to technology procurement, prompted by the newest iteration of the Digital Services Framework.

Among the government’s most important priorities is the delivery of a new breed of digital by default public services.

This is vital work. Government can’t keep working the way it has in the past: the days of profligate IT spending and wasteful internal process need to be put behind us. The careful selection, procurement and delivery of technology is vital if we’re going to achieve that. Government needs to work in a new way.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has made extraordinary and inspiring progress towards this goal, but there’s still a long way to go. And supplier companies are a part of that solution: the problem is too big for any one organisation to tackle alone.

But it’s important to be honest about the mistakes of the past, and government’s over-reliance on large, expensive, inflexible companies on long contracts was a whopper. If government seeks to secure new thinking, better products, fresh ideas and agile approaches - it must broaden and diversify its supplier base. Large companies have a role to play, but there’s no doubt that SMEs do too. There’s clearly value to government in working to attract more of them into the sector.

But to tempt the best and the brightest of the country’s SME suppliers into public sector work, the government’s got a long way to go. For decades the sector has been dominated by rubbish frameworks, wasteful bureaucracy and bafflingly complex process - not to mention government’s assumption that it’s reasonable for suppliers to put in weeks of work for no reward, just to get a foot in a tenuous door.

For government to succeed in its over-arching mission digital-by-default, it’s got to move away from this outdated-approach and towards enabling sensible, outcome-focussed contracts with suppliers that share its vision, values and culture.

Since 2011, The G-Cloud framework has offered a shining beacon of hope to SME suppliers. It’s not perfect, but by comparison to other frameworks, it’s in a league of its own. Its streamlined approach makes it quick and easy to procure agile development and cloud services, helping government teams to start delivering quickly. It should be a model for procurement reform across government.

But instead, Crown Commercial Services (CCS), which owns both G-Cloud and the recently re-minted Digital Services Framework (DSF), have removed agile development from G-Cloud, making DSF the sole remaining procurement route for agile digital service delivery.

This is problematic, because DSF is a flawed, failed framework. It’s an attempt to restore the bad old days of commodity body-shopping, but fails to accomplish even that in a workable way. It completely overlooks the reality that a good company is more than the sum total of its staff’s LinkedIn profiles.

As big a part of the quality and effectiveness of a company is its individuals, are also  its culture and its shared experience, its collective sense of purpose and mission, and its corporate memory. And the effectiveness of its teams, based on their trust, friendship, mutual respect and understanding. In my experience, clients value this as much as they value our technical expertise, and these qualities are ones that SMEs tend to have in spades, and are what makes them most useful.

Instead of contracting with the companies whose experience and culture match or complement those of GDS, CCS has set up a framework which extracts staff from good companies and assumes that the companies themselves have nothing to offer.

So, for the past few weeks, a small band of suppliers - mostly SMEs, but not all - have been bringing up these problems with government. Many of us have blogged about our reasons for opposing, including dxw, Helpful Technology, Clearleft and Futuregov. Many more are in the works. And, so far, suppliers are unanimous in their criticism of government’s current approach:

“The digital services framework is the wrong approach” - Stuart Murdoch, Surevine

“Digital Services Framework needs to be under GDS. It has never been more clear.” - Jan Jourbert, Rainmaker Solutions

“Digital services framework not fit for #SMEs” - Vicky Sargent, Boilerhouse

“We pulled back from DS2 to avoid body shopping” - Fivium

“It seems like GDS are weeding out the most experienced staff in favour of low-cost resources they can use to pad out their teams - reducing the country's amazing design and dev agencies to little more than recruitment firms.” - Andy Budd, Clearleft

“Having worked with every variety of public sector procurement and project methodology known to man for over 20 years at both national and local level I find this return to body shopping deeply depressing.” - Chris Gledhll, PDMS

“You don’t buy good digital people by the ounce.” - Steph Gray, Helpful Technology

We’ve had extremely productive conversations with Stephen Allott, the Crown Representative for SMEs, as well as with Tony Singleton and his team at GDS, who have committed to undertaking a discovery phase for the next iteration of DSF: starting over, with no assumptions. All of this is great news.

I spent most of Tuesday at the Think Cloud for Government conference, including conversations with Chris Chant, who set up the original G-Cloud framework in 2011. In tandem with Jan Joubert, he gave a characteristically excellent speech, laying out a plethora of serious problems that government has as yet still failed to address, and calling on CCS to be dismantled.

I’m not sure I’d go quite so far, but I am sure that CCS’s influence on the process has not been positive. It seems clear to me that GDS need more of a mandate to set the process by which technology procurement should happen.

In the short term, we’re less concerned about the exact mechanism for change, and more concerned that change actually happens. We’re calling for G-Cloud 5 to be extended so that it remains a procurement route until the launch of Digital Services 3 - and we’re hoping that we’ll be able to engage substantively with the GDS and CCS to ensure that DS3 sets a new standard for how good technology procurement can be.

Harry Metcalfe is managing director at dxw, a digital services provider dedicated to the public sector

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