Harry Metcalfe, managing director of dxw, a digital service provider to the public sector, provides an update on the latest government initiatives to provide a workable procurement framework for agile digital services.
The successful development of user-focused digital services is a vital part of housing’s future. Increasingly, tenants will demand these solutions. But even if they don’t, tightening resource constraints and the need to reduce costs and increase efficiency will make them necessary. The government is keen to encourage such innovation, and has been developing the Digital Services framework to help the public sector engage with agile service providers.
Unfortunately, not much progress has been made so far. In February this year, we united with a host of SMEs to criticise the government’s Digital Services 2 (DS2) framework because, to us, it seemed unfit for purpose. It required each supplier to write a small novella (14,000 words) to join the framework. It established costs via a reverse auction; a race to the bottom that would inevitably damage outcomes. And it encouraged ‘body shopping’; dropping individuals into projects with no team and minimal support. It seemed to recognise no value of a potential supplier’s experience of solving real user problems, or the effectiveness of an experienced team.
The good news is that the Government Digital Service has recognised these issues, and radical changes to the purchasing frameworks are on their way.
Writing in a blog post in June, Tony Singleton, the GDS programme’s commercial director, said, “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 update explains that the new framework will be focused around three distinct needs:
- Engaging a team to take on a particular project;
- Bringing in digital specialists;
- Access to ‘resources’, such as user research labs and finding research participants.
There will also be no reverse auction, instead a ‘straightforward’ evaluation for suppliers wishing to get onto the framework and more detailed assessments when individual contracts are set. Excitingly, there will be a period of supplier engagement and consultation about the general approach, the proposed contract and the ITT before the OJEU tender is published.
I’m really optimistic about this. Re-orientating the digital services framework around teams, specialists and supporting resources is a much more sensible approach; a closer fit to both the needs of buyers and the capabilities of suppliers.
Public sector procurement departments need to understand that good companies are more than the sum of their parts, and attempts to make tender responses comparable so that purchasing is based on objective assessments of value can squeeze out creativity and innovation. A good digital agency is not just about headcount and responses to a questionnaire, but about culture, process and shared experience.
I’m looking forward to lots more useful and interesting conversations at the consultation stage. I’m convinced that an open process like this is the fastest way to genuinely innovative service that will benefit end users, and the more people who pitch in to that process, the better.
Harry Metcalfe is managing director of DXW.