Is the Digital Services Framework making agile procurement difficult?

Suppliers of agile development services to government have spoken out against the Digital Services Framework, used for commissioning firms to work on public projects

Suppliers of agile development services to government have spoken out against Whitehall's Digital Services Framework, used for commissioning firms to work on public projects.

One such supplier, Clearleft, tried to join the framework, but ended up having to back out after the service required suppliers to meet very specific requirements that restricted their ability to bid. In particular, the framework required firms to have several mid-to-junior level employees with specific skills who would have to be based in government offices if the firm is chosen to work on a project - in effect, renting individual developers rather than the capabilities of the company that employs them. 

According to Clearleft's managing director Andy Budd, many digital firms, as well and small to medium-sized businesses, have a mixed culture of people who can perform many tasks. By requiring a set number of people with a specific skillsets, many organisations would be left out of the process, preventing growth or development of individuals and their businesses. 

Clearleft is not the only firm to express discontent. Public sector web design firm DXW has also highlighted the difficulty that SMEs, the main suppliers for the Digital Services Framework (DSF), face when working according to the strict requirements.

Harry Metcalfe, managing director of DXW, told Computer Weekly that by following the process of extracting staff from organisations and forcing them into an ad hoc team for a short-term project inside government, the framework has undermined what it tried to achieve and the market it has approached to achieve it. 

"Instead of contracting with the companies whose experience and culture match or complement those of the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) has set up a framework which extracts staff from good companies and assumes that the companies themselves have nothing to offer." said Metcalfe in a blog post detailing the issues

When the Government Digital Service (GDS) set out to create its Digital Marketplace for purchasing standard, off-the-shelf products and services - originally called CloudStore and including G-Cloud services - its focus was on making the procurement process easier for suppliers to government projects, as well as reducing the length of contracts and creating more chance for SMEs to provide services.

The creation of G-Cloud, which allowed organisations to choose suppliers for agile services, was meant to work in a similar way. But CCS has since separated digital development services from G-Cloud and - according to the affected suppliers - created a poor framework that makes it difficult for SMEs to take part.

Metcalfe suggested a structure modelled on G-Cloud would work better for agile developers, with short-term contracts for modular development which will allow one team from one organisation to fix a problem, and leave room for another supplier to work on or around what has been done. 

These small organisations have banded together and published blog updates in an effort to publicise the problems, as well as open a dialogue with relevant government departments to address these issues.

"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," Metcalfe said.

Andy Budd from Clearleft added that despite GDS outlining how it proposed to involve SMEs and industry experts in the framework, the process for applying and accepting tenders became cumbersome, and most small businesses would be forced to choose a longer contract with guaranteed terms and a lightweight application instead. 

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "​The Digital Services Framework is levelling the playing field for government contracts and supporting​ growth by giving opportunities to smaller suppliers​ - with SMEs making up 84% of those on the framework.We know more needs to be done to ensure that the needs of those who are building digital public services are met. We will further reduce the barriers for suppliers to provide highly capable individuals and teams to work with them. We welcome feedback, and we're constantly iterating and improving the service to ensure we offer suppliers the best experience possible."

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