Digital Services Framework: resisting Pessimistic Procurement

Surevine are a young SME that slightly pre-dates both G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework (DSF).  We started in 2008. Back then, we were confronted by UK Government Procurement teams that were pessimist.  We discovered that Procurement Officers had adopted contracts based on templates from the Government Procurement Service (now Crown Commercial Service – CCS).

These contracts were entirely SME un-friendly. In particular, they were based on a pessimistic procurement model: they assumed that a supplier’s primary motivation was to stitch them up, and this was apparent in dealings with procurement officers.

Early contract negotiations were like the haggling scene in the market in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”:  procurement officers came into negotiations expecting to haggle, assuming that we’d over-inflated our prices as an opening gambit. They were perplexed when we told them we had given them a fair price, and that we couldn’t take 10% off just for the sake of it.

We’re supposed to haggle

Just like poor Brian’s experience in Monty Python, this didn’t simplify the conversation. It meant that we had to go round and round in a protracted series of conversations, trying to convince them that we had set a fair price, we weren’t trying to stitch them up, and that we weren’t able to offer them random discounts (or throw in a gourd.)

Agile suppliers like Surevine, and hence Government, are currently in a much better place. SMEs coming into the public sector market in 2015 are in a much better place with G-Cloud. Many have done so, and are doing vital work to support the mission of making the UK Digital by Default.

I don’t want it, but thanks

I say currently because the pessimistic procurement model is back.  It is back in the guise of the Digital Services Framework (DSF). The UK Government, and the public sector more broadly, is about to be seriously limited in its ability to deliver digital public services. Because soon, they will be unable to buy agile development through the (SME embracing, non-pessimistic) G-Cloud when these services are removed from it on 22nd May.

What’s wrong with the DSF has been lucidly articulated by Harry Metcalfe at dxw, Dominic Campbell at Futuregov and a growing host of other UK SMEs, who have been instrumental in delivering a digital public sector in the UK that’s the envy of the world. I won’t repeat their points here. What’s apparent first and foremost to me is that DSF embodies the very pessimistic procurement model which we thought had been supplanted by the optimism embodied in G-Cloud.

Reverse auctions and least expensive technical fit procurements which imply that the lowest price is the only thing that matters (because the suppliers are there to stitch you up). Treating the talent which is available in UK digital SMEs as commodity bums-on-seats (because they will need a close eye kept on them to make sure they aren’t stitching us up). Exhausting, complicated procurement processes (because they’re paranoid about being sued by suppliers who have failed to stitch them up.)

These problems in DSF are all the more disappointing considering that the (non-pessimistic) G-Cloud has proven that it’s capable of securing the services of cohesive, productive teams who genuinely care about delivering great value and advancing the digital agenda.

Always look on the bright side…

So I hear that the GDS is planning to start from scratch with DSF3, which is great news. Here’s hoping that the optimistic spirit which is the beating heart of G-Cloud wins over, eliminating the pessimistic nay-sayers for good. And in the meantime, here’s hoping that the clarion voices of UK SMEs are heard despite the din of general election campaigning.

And, most importantly, here’s hoping that agile development services on G-Cloud get a stay of execution, at least until DSF3 is up an running – or better still, until DSF3 has proved its worth.