Better embracing local government G-Cloud needs
In meeting local public sector procurement needs, a wider cultural shift facilitating decision making from a capital and empowerment basis will be needed, argues Oneserve's Chris Proctor
The evolving enigma in public sector IT procurement has again been brought to the fore with the recent announcement of £1bn worth of sales through the G-Cloud framework.
Whilst this is obviously very positive and welcome news for everyone connected to G-Cloud, questions remain as to the framework's effectiveness to serve the entire spectrum of the public sector and how forthcoming further changes will impact its usefulness.
It would be very easy to dismiss Oneserve as another supplier having a poke at G-Cloud.
However, we like G-Cloud, we do business through G-Cloud. We don't have an axe to grind here, but there are aspects within the framework and wider procurement that need examining closely.
As a former councillor for Southampton City Council, I have straddled both sides of the fence and witnessed some of the issues first hand.
It's easy to look at the numbers surrounding the £1bn spent via G-Cloud and start coming to conclusions.
There's the story around who is and who isn't a SME; only in G-Cloud would organisations turning over £90m not be offended as being classified as an SME.
Or how about the fact that over the four lots, the undeniable winner of total spend is within the 'Specialist Cloud Services' sector, the one primarily concerned with consultancy services.
However, a more concerning story that we should really talk about is that of the 433 local government authorities of one nomination or another in the UK, only 42% have utilised G-Cloud.
Of these 183 local councils who have purchased via G-Cloud, their contribution accounts for just 5% of the total £1bn spend, amounting to £50m. Of this £50m, £25m comes from the top five councils, with Bristol City Council accounting for £11.4m of that.
What this highlights is that there is something of a disparity between central government commitment, and local government commitment. Obviously their budgets and spending powers are fundamentally different. However, local government stands to gain the most from an efficient procurement process.
The danger of not solving the issue at the core, or at least acknowledging it, is that more money is spent developing frameworks and platforms that once again miss because they fundamentally fail to address needs.
Local councils can be a fearful place. Not only do you have a line manager, a supervisor, a portfolio holder and a chief executive, you also have a number of elected members and of course and electorate, all of whom are looking to deliver the best for their own masters.
Decision making within this context can be like entering a bear pit, especially within councils with no overall control. Procurement decisions can frequently face scrutiny at multiple levels, leading to guessing, second guessing, political point scoring and directional changes.
On top of that, we have a whole sea change potential every four years or less in some cases. How really, can one truly expect to make pragmatic, strategic decisions in such an environment?
Does this give councils the confidence to look at large capital projects within their IT infrastructure, which, whilst improving services, would be a large expense, and not necessarily as visible as keeping front line services operating?
Certainly it explains the severe reluctance on the part of local authorities to engage with such services as G-Cloud, particularly in parting from services and companies that they have worked with for years. It may be better (and more politically stable) to stick with the devil you know.
There are a number of changes currently being implemented including the scrapping of the Digital Services framework (set to be replaced by Digital Outcomes and Specialists). This is a pattern we've had almost since the original framework was introduced in 2012. Amendment upon amendment, some of which have improved the service, but can make for a continuing and confusing procurement process for both vendor and end-user.
Indeed, the figures back up the fact that the changes have yet to really impact local government involvement, or shift traditional patterns that continue to dominate IT procurement in the public sector.
What needs to happen is a wider, cultural shift, one that facilitates decision making, both from a capital and an empowerment basis.
Should councillors, who, have no pre-requisite to be business experts, have the ability to change the playing field to the extent that they do when elected? Of course there is a more fundamental question here, but in order to facilitate proper planning and strategies, questions do need to be debated as to how this can be made possible, or at least extents thereof.
Alternatively, we accept the existing paradigm as fait accompli, but that doesn't feel right, does it?
The challenge, is that the issues are not binary and mutually exclusive. Certainly, reforms planned and made by the Crown Commercial Service will be integral.
However, while you can lead a horse to water, you cannot make it drink. To do that, the horse needs to be thirsty, the water needs to be appealing and the benefits must be clear.
I won't stretch the metaphor any further, nor do I mean to reduce our excellent procurement teams to an equine analogy, but the point remains. For any reforms to be truly effective, they need to be done in conjunction with a wholesale empowerment of local government procurement teams and committees.
The civil servants who serve in our councils, day-after-day, election-after-election, need to be able to make decisions and define strategies in a non-political, or at least, quasi non-political environment.
Clearly, there is a delta to traverse to facilitate a utopian view such as this, however, one sees little way in which we can solve these challenges once and for all, without providing the relevant tools and environment.
Chris Proctor is a former councillor and chief executive officer with supplier Oneserve.