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The long-awaited Network Services Framework RM1045 (NSF) has gone live across the whole of the public sector – including the NHS – covering 10 technology lots and offering more opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to do business with the government.
The framework, which was supposed to have gone live in April 2015 under the government’s original plans, slipped after a deluge of more than 800 supplier clarification queries forced the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) to push back the tender deadlines.
It will last for four years and is designed to replace the Public Sector Telecommunication Services (PSTS), Public Services Network Connectivity (PSNC) and Public Services Network Services (PSNS) frameworks, with which it will run concurrently for a time after PSN was extended. CCS claimed it would deliver savings of approximately 16% – at least £59m – compared with the previous setup.
In scope, public sector telecommunications spend is estimated at £1.5bn per annum. Spend through the agreement is forecast to be a minimum of £318m over the next four financial years, which the government believes is a conservative forecast informed from spend through existing arrangements. There are some substantial network renewals anticipated during this period in central government, so if all were to utilise NSF and transition in a timely manner, this has the potential to take the spend to circa £2bn over the next four years.
CCS commercial director for technology Sarah Hurrell said that 31% of suppliers on the framework were SMEs, compared with 16% across all other networks agreements. In total, 61 suppliers are understood to have made it onto the framework.
“There are some interesting new players with interesting new technologies. We are really trying to open the market up,” said Hurrell.
Before, for example, if a supplier wished to offer wide-area networking (WAN) services it had to cover the whole of the UK and all variants from A to Z. Under NSF, to be on any individual lot, it can offer any of the services, but the compulsory part might only be M to P, meaning regional and smaller players can take part without fear of not being able to offer enough breadth or scope, she explained.
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The new system also recognises that smaller companies, for which their business model means they like to run a smaller profit on their accounts, need to be able to operate their finances slightly differently and retain their financial stability, and will not be excluded merely because they are small.
Hurrell said: “That’s brought competitiveness on price that wasn’t there before because everyone has to compete based on what they can deliver. We have got the right suppliers, encouraged new suppliers and small and medium businesses, and the right level of competitiveness.”
The 10 lots of the framework are Data Access Services, Local Connectivity Services, Traditional Telephony, Inbound Telephony, IP Telephony Solutions, Mobile Voice and Data Services, Paging Services, Video Conferencing, Audio Conferencing, and Integrated Communications.
Hurrell said that CCS had built on the lessons learnt from both previous frameworks and the extensive consultation process.
“We’ve done lots of market engagement and spent a lot of time with suppliers and customers. We got suppliers into working groups to tell us how they would like to sell to government. Some of what they proposed we accomplished, some we didn’t. We tried to arbitrate between what users and suppliers wanted,” she said.
“We really made an effort to listen to that feedback – including listening to customers across the public sector so we hope that means they will want to use it because we’ve given them what they asked for.”
The government believes that up to 23% of the suppliers are entirely new to central government procurement opportunities, and said NSF should allow more flexibility, more catalogue opportunities and competition, and should be simpler to use.
Innopsis, the industry association for suppliers active on the PSN framework, welcomed the NSF going live but at the same time encouraged a review of the procurement process that has “suffered multiple delays and nearly 12 months in the pipeline”.
Having worked extensively with CCS to help develop an SME-friendly framework, Innopsis said it was gratifying that so many more SMEs were listed than on the incumbent PSN frameworks, and applauded CCS’s commitment to SME suppliers.
Innopsis commercial director Ian Fishwick said the decision to offer compulsory and non-compulsory options was a huge boon to SMEs.
“Previously, the most common reason for SME’s not bidding was the requirement that they should be able to supply all products needed, no matter how little revenue would be spent on them. The longer the list of products, the more likely an SME couldn’t supply at least one of them,” he said.
Nevertheless, Fishwick pointed out some concerns over NSF – notably that cost has remained the determining factor for contract awards, meaning that only the cheapest systems, or systems that are “not relevant or appropriate” for the public sector, can win.
“Even in a period of austerity we have to recognise that not everyone necessarily wants an economy runabout – some might want a people carrier or a four-wheel drive that better meets specific conditions and user needs,” he said.
Innopsis plans to conduct a more detailed survey on the procurement among its members to gain more structured feedback. It said it was good news that constructive dialogue between CCS and the industry had led to a massive step forward, but added: “We have to recognise that we are still a long way from the finished article.”