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Competitive threats: What the growth in new public sector cloud frameworks means for G-Cloud

Public sector IT buyers may soon find themselves spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding where to procure their cloud services, thanks to the emergence of several new frameworks, but where does that leave G-Cloud?

Over the past seven years, and 10 iterations, it is fair to say that the G-Cloud framework has had a transformative impact on the government IT procurement landscape.

It was originally conceived as a means of opening up government IT procurement to a much wider pool of suppliers, while levelling the playing field for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) intent on getting on the radar of public sector IT procurement chiefs.

At the time, the framework was lauded as a means of putting a stop to public sector organisations finding themselves locked into lengthy, costly, multi-year IT contracts with large systems integrators whose technology may not always have been the most innovative, best value for money, or even well suited to their needs.

According to figures issued by the government procurement chiefs at the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), who oversee management of G-Cloud, the past 10 iterations of the framework have generated £4.3bn in public sector cloud spend to date.

The next iteration, G-Cloud 11, is due to go live in early July 2019, with the CCS currently seeking applications from suppliers interested in populating its Lots, and securing a slice of the £1.9bn in public sector IT spend it predicts will be generated by the framework this time.

CCS has already confirmed that the 11th outing of G-Cloud will see no major changes made to the scope of the framework, and its focus is on enabling suppliers to refresh their listings, while making it possible for new faces to be added to the supplier mix.

The CCS figures perhaps go some way to explaining why the organisation appears to be adopting an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance on G-Cloud 11, along with the fact that its launch comes at a time when so much of the government’s attention is fixed on Brexit preparations.

There is also the not-insignificant fact that the G-Cloud leadership team within CCS has recently undergone a few personnel changes, including the departure of long-standing member Rob Macleod, who was replaced about eight months ago by Kevin Todd.

The great SME G-Cloud sales slowdown

However, there are concerns among the G-Cloud supplier community that this inertia could be contributing to the continued decline in the percentage of spend that SMEs are securing through the framework.

In March 2018, 48% of the total sales by value generated by G-Cloud had gone to SME IT suppliers, between the framework’s launch in 2012 to 31 December 2017, whereas a year earlier, that percentage stood at 56%.

In a statement to Computer Weekly, the CCS said the amount of public sector spend being awarded to SMEs at present through G-Cloud has “consistently been above” 40% to date and, so far this year, stands at 40.2%. “For comparison, 2017/18’s end-of-year figure was 45.5%,” it said.

The downturn has previously been attributed to a shift in buying behaviour over the past couple of years, with some central government departments shifting away from using home-grown SME IT suppliers to host their data locally.

The main beneficiaries of this trend have been the hyperscale cloud giants, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft, which have both seen marked increases in the amount of business they have secured through the G-Cloud framework since opening their UK datacentres in late 2016.

Ahead of the launch of G-Cloud 10, framework stakeholders told Computer Weekly they hoped CCS might introduce changes that would go some way to helping arrest the decline.

Particularly as the organisation had initially mooted the idea of delaying its launch for up to a year so some unspecified “functionality improvements” could be made to the framework, which SME suppliers hoped would be targeted towards them.

In the event, the CCS decided against delaying the launch, citing end-user feedback that preventing suppliers from updating their listings for so long could hamper the ability of the public sector to innovate, as it would not have access to the latest and greatest cloud technologies.

Instead, the CCS said it had decided to “deliver enhancements” to the framework over its lifetime, rather than delay the launch to roll out changes to it.

There were concerns raised at the time that the CCS may have missed an opportunity to address some longstanding user and supplier gripes about how the framework operates by backtracking on the delay. Fast forward to the launch of G-Cloud 11, and those concerns are not just enduring, but seem to be increasing in volume too.

One of the reasons for that is the emergence of several new public sector cloud procurement frameworks that are broadly similar in content to G-Cloud, apart from some operational variances or differences in scope.

According to several G-Cloud suppliers, which spoke to Computer Weekly on condition of anonymity, the roll-out of these frameworks could be considered a sign that G-Cloud is failing to meet the needs of public sector IT buyers, who are responding by creating their own.

The wood for the trees

One area that the suppliers Computer Weekly spoke to flagged was the issue of discoverability, given that there are now – according to the CCS’s own figures – 3,300 suppliers with 25,000 services listed on G-Cloud 10.

That is a lot to wade through for any public sector IT buyer, but suppliers claim a recent change to the design of the Digital Marketplace web portal, through which users access the services listed on G-Cloud, has made it harder still to find services that meet their needs.

Computer Weekly understands that the roll-out of G-Cloud 10 saw the Government Digital Service introduce a change that meant suppliers were no longer mandated to include a service description as part of their product listings.

The fact that it is now optional means some suppliers are not bothering to include a description that sets out to users what their services do.

For suppliers hoping to win business through G-Cloud, this is short-sighted behaviour, but it also makes life harder for buyers, says public sector cloud analyst Lindsay Smith.

“The service description is the place to differentiate yourself from your competition and make that vital connection between real problems and issues in your target sector and your technology,” he tells Computer Weekly. “That is the Rosetta Stone.

“Tech suppliers talk in the language of our technology. Prospects talk in the language of their problem and desired outcome. The service description is where you connect the two.”

According to Smith’s own sift through the G-Cloud 10 supplier catalogue of software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings, 36% of the listings within that category (2,883 in total) offer no service description at all, and some leave a lot to be desired.

“Looking at the quality of service description shows that 30% more services have service descriptions that offer no additional useful information,” says Smith. “In fact, many just copy stuff already on the face of the catalogue or just put up a copy of a product leaflet. This is remarkably stupid.

“Suppliers are sleepwalking into failure, and creating so much dead wood [in the process] is another reason why buyers are turning away from G-Cloud. Suppliers need to wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late.”

“Suppliers are sleepwalking into failure, and creating so much dead wood [in the process] is another reason why buyers are turning away from G-Cloud. Suppliers need to wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late”
Lindsay Smith, public sector cloud analyst

Smith has a point here, because the NHS Shared Business Service (SBS) told Computer Weekly recently that one of the key motivations behind its decision to roll out a cloud framework of its own is to simplify and streamline the procurement process of its stakeholders.

The soon-to-be launched NHS SBS Cloud Solutions Framework is valued at £500m and is set to go live in early June 2019. It is divided into four Lots that cover a lot of similar ground to G-Cloud, with one focused on design and consultancy, while another is concerned with the provision of cloud infrastructure, software and platform-as-a-service offerings. The remaining two offer cloud support services and end-to-end cloud solutions.

While NHS SBS is overseeing the framework, the organisation confirmed that the wider public sector will be welcome to use it too, which could lead to some spend being diverted away from G-Cloud.

In its statement to Computer Weekly, the framework is described as a means of providing public sector authorities with a “simplified procurement route in a complex and crowded market” that will provide its users with easier access to tier 1 cloud service providers.

“The NHS SBS Cloud Solutions framework will provide a concise, OJEU [Official Journal of the European Union]-compliant, flexible and accessible route to procure cloud solutions for public sector authorities, with a smaller and more focused pool of suppliers,” the statement says.

“The framework is structured in a way which guides customers through their cloud journey: from consultancy and readiness assessment, to the procurement of their infrastructure and platform and ongoing support, in-house skills development and cloud optimisation.”

The second framework giving G-Cloud suppliers cause for concern is a multi-supplier construct being touted by the Scottish government as a means of providing its public sector organisations with “efficient access” to cloud services in a “safe, secure and environmentally friendly way”.

Again, it shares some similarities in focus to G-Cloud, in that users will be able to procure public, private and hybrid cloud services through it, as well as cloud migration services.

It is not a brand new framework, as such, and is being ushered in as a replacement for the Scottish Government’s four-year Hosting Services Framework, which is due to end in May 2019.

Even so, it differs from G-Cloud in that Scottish public sector organisations can use it procure colocation services, which ceased to be the case as far as the G-Cloud framework is concerned several iterations ago.

There is an operational difference too, which the Scottish Government cited as a factor in a statement to Computer Weekly as a factor in its decision to launch it.

“Its scope of work will allow organisations to procure a wide range of cloud-hosting services under one contract, such as colocation, private cloud and public cloud,” a Scottish government spokesperson said.

“Although G-Cloud is used by a number of Scottish public sector bodies, it does not allow the flexibility for all services to be delivered under one contract – a requirement that is important to our stakeholders. The Cloud Services Framework will be able to offer that.”

The start date for the framework is unclear at present, although the deadline for supplier admissions passed on 28 March 2019.

Cannibalisation and crossover

The amount of crossover between these two frameworks and what G-Cloud provides adds weight to the theory that the latter is failing to address the needs of the public sector, hence the need for alternatives.

John Glover, sales and marketing director at G-Cloud-listed collaboration software provider Kahootz, shares the view that if the quality of listings within the Digital Marketplace were higher, buyers might be less inclined to think about setting up their own frameworks.

“There is work to be done around the quality side of things to give public sector buyers more confidence when it comes to purchasing services from G-Cloud, and that would negate the need for the alternative frameworks that keep popping up,” Glover tells Computer Weekly.

And the fact that these exist risks creating unnecessary inefficiency within the public sector because these frameworks are essentially duplicating work that has already been done, given how much overlap there is between them and G-Cloud.

The same is true for suppliers, which face duplicating their own efforts when trying to get listed on all these additional frameworks. For the SMEs that G-Cloud is supposed to be giving a leg-up to, applying for a place on these frameworks places an even bigger administrative burden on them.

“I don’t want to put myself on multiple frameworks, and I shouldn’t feel disadvantaged by not doing so when there are 30-odd thousand people [within the public sector] who can buy from us [through G-Cloud],” says Glover.

There is also the fact that, if these frameworks do prove popular and more end up soaking up the public sector IT spend that has traditionally been taken up by G-Cloud, SME suppliers which are unable to secure a place on them stand to lose out, he says.

Read more about G-Cloud and public sector procurement

“If I don’t do it and the market starts to go elsewhere, that is the danger. What if, for example, there is a four-year framework that you don’t apply to get on? You could potentially find yourself locked out of a market for all that time, missing out on deals,” says Glover.

Another reason put forward by Glover for why these new frameworks are emerging could be down to misconceptions within the public sector buying community about the purpose of G-Cloud, which is something the Government Digital Service and CCS need to address urgently.

Glover claims it is not uncommon within some parts of the public sector for people to describe G-Cloud as a “quick fix” or “short-cut” route to using cloud or to claim it is best suited for smaller-scale deployments because it is populated by SMEs – which is not a fair reflection at all.

“Perception is everything, and the perception is that if you need something longer-term or ‘weightier’, you set up a framework of your own,” he adds. “It is always concerning when you hear people trying to marginalise G-Cloud in that way.”

Computer Weekly contacted the CCS for a response to the notion that the emergence of these frameworks could be considered indicative of the fact public sector IT buyers are becoming somewhat disenchanted with G-Cloud, and received the following response:

“During the eight months since G-Cloud 10 went live in July last year, public sector buyers have driven £181m of spend through it… and it plays a leading role as a source of innovative cloud-based solutions for the public sector.”

“The Crown Commercial Service is determined to ensure it builds on that position, and continues to deliver for the government’s SME agenda.”

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