A fresh approach

Written by Harry Metcalfe on 5 June 2015 in Opinion
Opinion

Harry Metcalfe welcomes the fresh approach to the Digital Services framework, but says the devil will be in the detail.

The Digital Marketplace team have just published their June update, and it’s a biggie. It covers lots of ground. Digital Services 1 and 2 look set to continue as they are, but there are several major announcements about progress on Digital Services 3.

I say Digital Services 3, but it sounds a lot like that’s a framework which will never be. Tony Singleton has announced that the changes they’re planning are so significant that they don’t feel it makes sense to think about them in the terms of the Digital Services Framework. So we’re getting a whole new one:

It has become clear from user research that Digital Services needs to be completely redesigned to the extent that it will essentially be a new framework. We’re even considering giving it a new name that more accurately reflects its purpose.

The new framework will move away from body-shopping and will instead be focussed around three distinct needs:

  1. Engaging a team to take on a particular project (Hurrah!)
  2. Bringing in digital specialists (presumably for highly specific skills? Not clear as yet)
  3. Access to “resources”  (again a bit unclear, but the post specifies user research labs and finding research participants as examples. I can imagine some kind of lot for supporting services like that being pretty useful)

They’ve also confirmed that there’ll be no reverse auction, that there will be a “straightforward” evaluation to get on the framework, and more detailed assessment when individuals contracts are let:

As with DS2, there will be no reverse auction, with the detailed evaluation likely to be carried out at the request for proposal stage, where the individual requirements will be known. There will still need to be an evaluation of suppliers responses to the OJEU. We’re looking at how we can make this as straightforward as possible while ensuring that the framework is populated with good quality suppliers, with the right capabilities to deliver a high quality service.

Sound familiar?

This is all great news. It was frustrating not to be able to know what was going on during the pre-election period, and it’s reassuring to now have some detail about GDS’s thinking. And the thinking seems good.

Re-orientating the framework around teams, specialists and supporting resources is a much more sensible approach – a closer fit both to the needs of buyers and the capabilities of suppliers. Hopefully this will be based on G-Cloud-esque service definitions and published costs, but that’s yet to be announced.

Pushing selection the point of purchase is absolutely vital, and it sounds like that’s the direction of travel too. No more 13,000-word novellas. That said, there are some words in there about ensuring that suppliers’ capabilities and quality are assessed at the start, which smacks a little of eating one’s cake and having it – but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

As in DS2, it’s confirmed that there’ll be no e-auction. This is also a vital change, as the e-auction process was totally, horribly ill-suited to the services these frameworks are set up to provide.

Also excitingly, and in stark contrast to DS2, there’ll be a period of supplier engagement and consultation about the general approach, the proposed contract and the ITT before the OJEU is published. So I’m looking forward to lots more useful and interesting conversations. I’m convinced that an open process is the fastest way to get to good things, and the more people who pitch in, the better.

Some niggling concerns

First, as ever, the devil’s in the detail. At a high level this sounds like exactly the right approach, but the little things can make or break these processes. There’s not yet enough detail on the framework or call-off selection processes to know if they’ll be better. We don’t know what we’re going to be asked to provide to describe our services or their costs. We don’t know how the framework will support (or not support) broader things like published project pipelines, marketing, or providing management information.

But I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect that we would know those sorts of things at this stage. And in any case, this only highlights the need for ongoing engagement, with suppliers staying involved throughout. Decisions are made by the people who turn up. So let’s keep turning up.

Second, although this process sounds great, it is inevitably going to take a while. It’s taken almost five months to get to this point, and there’s awful lot more to do. G-Cloud 5, however, trundles on unstoppably, and disappears in November, no matter what. I can’t imagine this will have launched by November, so we’re still left in a bit of a pickle if DS2 doesn’t work out.

This is a big concern, and although today’s blog post from the Marketplace team makes very reassuring reading about the long-term picture, it’s a bit light on what happens post-G5. For my part, I hope that GDS/CCS will give serious consideration to restoring agile dev services in G-Cloud 7, so that we avoid any gaps and have an alternative until the new framework is proven. That, or just extend G-Cloud 5, legalities notwithstanding. I can’t imagine anyone’s actually going to challenge it.

Third, I’m still unaware of any guiding principles for how these things should be done. Or, alternatively, some exposition from the Digital Marketplace team on how the GDS design and governance principles apply to procurement. This is a missing piece of the puzzle: I don’t really know what this team’s true north is. I don’t know what their guiding principles are when conflict arises. I wonder how the team is working in their absence, and I wonder even more how cooperation between GDS and CCS can work without them.

Although, on that point, I think today’s announcements are a great sign that the GDS/CCS working relationship must be getting better, perhaps allaying previous concerns. This much progress in this time wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

And progress this surely is.

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

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