Pan balance

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Digital people by the ounce

Five years ago, I remember being in Government trying to buy an enterprise licence for Huddle, an innovative UK cloud-based project management tool. In those days, the technical co-founder himself would pop round our office to sort things out, and it took days of internal negotiation with IT colleagues to reassure them that using a secure website to share files wouldn’t spell disaster. In the end, the only way we bought it was thanks to help from the Interactive Services team at COI, who heroically persuaded their own procurement team it could be done, despite them being very dubious. They were more used to buying digital design services in ad agency-style pitches, and selecting an unique tool off the internet that you wanted to buy directly on an annual licence sounded deeply iffy. I found it easier to contract the services of The Dextrous Web Ltd, comprised of a youthful Harry Metcalfe and James Darling, than the server to host their team’s code on.

These days, it’s the other way round.

Harry’s right, of course, when he lays into the nonsense that is the Digital Services Framework, which instead of making it easier to buy good digital services, in fact makes it harder.

We’ve been on the first iteration of the Digital Services Framework, and it’s been a largely pointless experience and a considerable waste of time and email.

Like Harry’s team, my firm is a small team with a mix of skills – our main back-end developer has a passion for UX and training; our front-ender can also design etc – which never fitted into DSF’s strict whole-numbers-only allocation of Resources.

Though we’ll travel, we’re based in London, and can’t spend weeks on end in Warrington or Newcastle.

We’ve not perfected it yet, but we’re gradually improving our processes, our sharing of knowledge, our team culture and our support processes. We don’t have to be in the same room to work well together, but we need to be in touch throughout the day as well as maintain some institutional memory and client relationships. It’s daft to pretend an agency team of people creating and supporting digital services can work in any other way.

It’s equally daft to procure those people in a ‘reverse auction’ where suppliers are told the 50 bidders with the lowest rates will be appointed to the framework. I remember watching the day rate on the screen in front of me drop and drop until it was a good 40% below our regular (pretty competitive) one, and then giving up. I’m still confused how we ended up winning a place on the framework at all. Still, it’s not led to anything useful since, apart from lots of email.

G-Cloud works much better for us (though I do miss the simple logic of the old COI competitive tenders with a handful of shortlisted suppliers and a logical brief). As Harry puts it:

We need a framework that nurtures suppliers who share the culture and approach of GDS, helping them to grow, thrive and multiply. We need a framework that’s designed to serve the user needs of buyers and suppliers who are getting things done.

We need to build on the shining example of the G-Cloud framework, using short contracts, open standards, flexible terms and financial transparency to manage cost and commercial risk. Heavy-handed procurement process should be a thing of the past.

We reviewed the paperwork for the second iteration of the Digital Services Framework before Christmas: assessed the effort involved, and the slim prospect of suitable, enjoyable, commercially-viable work arising from it, and decided it wasn’t worth the bother this time.

So much about the government digital landscape has been positively transformed in the last few years, it’s a shame SME procurement still hasn’t been fixed. You don’t buy good digital people by the ounce.

Photo credit: Matt Smith

  1. Keep the faith. The dinosaurs became extinct and so will the government/civil servants who are holding everything back. Keep fighting for a digital Britain. And so will we.

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