The UK public sector currently spends in excess of £200 billion procuring goods and services from third parties every year (writes Romy Hughes, a director of consultancy Brightman). However, despite its best efforts and a government commitment to spend 33 percent of public sector procurement directly with SMEs by 2022, a disproportionate amount of this is still spent with the same old outsourcers.
We first addressed this issue in our recent analysis of the government’s procurement approach (“Taking the brakes off: How SMEs can be unleashed to drive the rapid digitisation of the public sector,”), where we shared our criticisms of the numerous framework agreements that have been established in recent years to make it easier for businesses to bid for government contracts.
Having been the first framework to launch, the G-Cloud is arguably the famous of these agreements. Now in its tenth iteration, what does the future hold for David Cameron’s digital posterchild?
In an effort to address the “institutional bias” against small and medium sized businesses in the public sector, David Cameron appointed Lord Young of Graffham as enterprise adviser in 2010 with the specific aim of overcoming the systemic imbalance against SMEs.
Tying in with the government’s “cloud first” ambitions for public sector IT, the G-Cloud was launched in 2012 to make it easier for public-sector bodies to procure commodity IT services that use cloud computing. It is worth remembering the G-Cloud is not the only framework agreement in existence, nor the only policy driving fair procurement for digitisation services in government.
Other frameworks for example include the excellent Crown Hosting (2015) and Digital Outcomes & Specialists. The Government Digital Service (GDS) – the Cabinet Office “centre of excellence” which aims to drive the digital transformation of government across all departments – is also a brilliant initiative for driving fairer procurement in the public sector.
Is It a Problem of Design?
Now in its 10th iteration, a stated aim of the G-Cloud framework was to improve access for SMEs. The most recent sales figures show that only 56% of total sales by value were awarded to SMEs in G-Cloud 9, leaving 44% of value to be picked up by a handful of the usual suspects. Clearly more work needs to be done.
From our analysis, the fundamental challenge of the G-Cloud framework is a technical one – it doesn’t work in the way SMEs actually generate business. On the flip size, it doesn’t support the way government customers like to find suppliers either. As a platform, the G-Cloud is difficult to navigate and very unwieldy, and its search engine is clearly not modelled on Google; it simply fails to match contracts to the most relevant suppliers.
A Victim of its Own Success?
The G-Cloud appears to struggle under the sheer volume of suppliers listed on the platform; a staggering 2,847 suppliers were approved for G-Cloud 9 for example. Combine the high volume of suppliers with a search function that struggles to match them to the most relevant opportunities it is no surprise that many government buyers continue to buy the “old fashioned way” outside of the framework.
As an example of the challenges faced by government purchasers in using the framework, many find themselves turning to third parties just to help them navigate the G-Cloud and find the right supplier for their needs. If you have to pay consultants to help you use your own tools, clearly something has gone very wrong.
Looking at the technical challenges facing G-Cloud, there are many parts of the search functionality that can be improved relatively quickly:
Improve the relevancy of filters: Many of the filters in the search function are either not relevant (e.g. sellers/resellers) or do not reflect real business solutions. This makes it very difficult for buyers to find the supplier they need. Common business and technology terms are often not listed on the platform so buyers cannot filter for the solution they need. If you are looking for a change management expert for example, you’re out of luck, because “change management” does not exist as a category in its own right (despite this being a widely-used industry term).
Introduce a list of industry definitions: What is digital transformation really? As with any major technology trend, digital transformation often means different things to different people. Introducing a common definition of the terms used on G-Cloud would be a useful step forward towards consistency in understanding of major themes.
Put search results in order, any order: It is currently unclear how the G-Cloud search engine algorithm prioritises its results. This makes it very difficult for government buyers to shortlist the most relevant suppliers, and challenging for suppliers who invest significant time in building their G-Cloud listings with little knowledge of how effective their listings will be.
Align service categories to real-world use cases: It can take years for the latest IT trends and terminologies to be reflected on the platform. This unfairly discriminates against SMEs who are often the ones pushing the industry forward with new ideas, as they must shoehorn their proposition into a category which is not truly reflective of their service offering.
Too Many Frameworks?
The Government Digital Service should be commended for its work in getting a consistent message out to public sector organisations, but with so many different framework agreements to choose from, each with their own flavours and terms, the choice for buyers and suppliers is too great.
This leads to inconsistency of contract terms for the same work and a fall back to describing work in a particular way that only those directly involved in it can truly understand and perhaps, bid for successfully. This beggars the question, do we have too many framework agreements now? Do we still need G-Cloud in light of the other frameworks that have been launched since?
We want the G-Cloud to stay, but these issues are holding it back. Reform is urgently needed to help more SMEs to break into the public sector, but to also achieve the government’s own ambitions to drive the digitisation of the UK public sector as a whole. We hope these will be addressed by the time G-Cloud 11 comes around.