By Tony Collins
The Cabinet Office has ended three framework procurements after an internal review, reports Government Computing.
Framework contracts have made it easy for buyers in central departments to prolong IT buying habits of the past, by ignoring new ideas, and by-passing SMEs and G-Cloud. They can use frameworks to choose known suppliers without going to a full open tender each time.
Now Bill Crothers, the government’s chief procurement officer says bold action is needed to save more money and attract more innovative suppliers.
He told Government Computing:
“After looking at the current frameworks in use, we’ve decided to cease the Application Development, Delivery and Support Service and Hosting Services procurements from today and Service Integration & Management Services will not be progressed through the framework route.
“Frameworks which are already operating effectively and delivering significant change such as the Public Services Network and G-Cloud provide a model for success and will continue.”
The Cabinet Office says fewer IT frameworks will attract a wider range of suppliers. Frameworks let buyers choose from a list of pre-approved suppliers. They will be allowed only where they are shown to deliver against the commercial ICT strategy and can attract businesses of all sizes.
Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary Chloe Smith said:
“Framework agreements only work if they deliver what they set out to deliver and drive the greatest competition from a wider range of suppliers, including SMEs.”
In 2010 Nigel Smith, who was then CEO of the Office of Government Commerce, said that nearly a third of everything government spends is on procurement. He spoke of the need for major changes, saying there was “massive duplication”. He added:
“We need shooting if we don’t make the changes.”
In 2011 Chris Chant who was then programme director at the Cabinet Office for G-Cloud, said something similar.
“The vast majority of government IT in my view is outrageously expensive, is ridiculously slow, or agile-less, is poor quality in the main and, most unforgivably I think, is rarely user-centric in any meaningful way at all.”
It can cost £50,000 to change one line of code, he added.
John Suffolk, when he was government CIO, spoke of “bucket-loads of cash” that can be saved by common IT systems, and eliminating duplication and disparate infrastructures.
So what has happened since? Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and his senior officials have made some important changes. But government IT is an aircraft carrier whose rudders don’t move left or right, except by tiny amounts. Crothers and his procurement team can accept this or resolve to tackle the fundamentals.
Ceasing three framework contracts is moving the rudders of government IT a small amount but it’s a start. As politicians say: there is a lot more to do, and time is running out.
The reservoir of will to reform central government administration is nearly full at present. It may be running low by the time the next government comes to power.
It’s a good first step and I agree with David Chassels comments. However, simply cancelling some framework contracts doesn’t actually address the issues as this is a top down approach. From the bottom up perspective the view that ‘no one got fired for buying IBM’ is still very pervasive. The organisations that might procure are invariably advised by procurement staff / consultants whose prime motivation is not to make a mistake. This leads us all down the path of protracted procurement, PRINCE2 adherence and standards or method as panacea (Agile being the latest example). Such blind adherence to the ways of the past along with a ‘minimum turnover’ requirement is what stifles innovation reaching those that need it.
I am not suggesting that we toss all that stuff out (but that does present interesting possibilities) but we need to step back and see the glory that is the wood rather than focusing the the colour of the bark on an individual tree.
What is required is an approach to software design that is framework based and a recognition that software so built is not expensive, extremely flexible and interoperable. This form of approach is not predicated on any particular platform or technology, proprietary or open source, but it does require a paradigm shift on the part of the supplier and to a lesser extent the customer. It also requires that the purchaser is not afraid to state that they do not understand and that they be willing to let go of the safety net that is perceived to be there when dealing with Big SI type suppliers.
The likes of Microsoft, SAP and ORACLE now have offerings which are framework based. I have used such technologies to develop vertical content based on my companies view of a frameworked approach and done so very successfully for the past 8 years. Ask our clients about their real ROI when so supplied.
With the next few years seeing a massive increase in the take up of mobile working and a requirement for an always connected business ecosystem the ability to write code once and have it available natively on any device (and I don’t mean a web based solution) is going to be a key requirement for success for all concerned and will lead to real growth and innovation within a given business domain, which will become the value added factor.
The UK has a good reputation for innovation creation BUT a poor record for commercial exploitation to create home grown global companies. This applies in particular to the important business to business markets where the US has been so successful. This note is setting some ideas how this may be addressed and is based on real experience of the challenges Procession has faced. The Government is the largest buyer of goods and services and as such has the ability to lead change. The recent moves to open up procurement to SMEs is encouraging but to be truly effective to create economic wealth it requires a change of attitude with understanding of the relevant issues. This note is going to focus on the two most important areas that need urgent attention.
• The first point to make is that the needs of technology SMEs are quite different from service driven ones. The reality is that technology driven SMEs should not be bidding for contracts which are a distraction and counter productive to their need to focus on their technology. Yet it is such companies that can bring real savings and have the potential to export. Government need to have a mechanism in place to identify such entrepreneurial companies with proven technology. This will require what the Public Administration Select Committee described in their report on Government ICT as becoming the “intelligent customer”. As such, a leading expert in ICT said recently “It really matters how your vendors build their software, not just what they build”. This applies to all procurement and there is no evidence this important issue has been addressed. The cost to UK Government is very high with the DWP Universal Credit an extreme example. In contrast the Dutch Government approach to their UC project works with an innovative local company adopting a new approach.
• It is important that a central resource takes responsibility for such “research” and the subsequent distribution of knowledge. Government cannot rely on the established industry analysts who are too close to the large dominant suppliers feeding of both tables. It is both unrealistic and inefficient to expect every government organisation to have the required expertise to assess new technologies. Knowledge of the “art of the possible” should be wide spread not just in procurement which will ensure “joined up thinking” for projects and any initiatives that promote ideas. Again there is little evidence of such thinking.
The track record of Government initiatives on innovation failing is all too evident as detailed in this commentary http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/editors-blog/2012/12/government-it-reform—now-the.html Yet the “local” PR gives a different impression; just evidence of “silo” thinking and lack of overall direction of the bigger picture to seriously seek out innovation to both save money and help create much needed new economic wealth creators with global potential.