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CIO interview: Niall Quinn, technology director, Crown Commercial Service

The Crown Commercial Service’s technology director talks about how the government’s procurement agency is working to make buying easier, drive innovation forward and shake up the public sector

The government’s procurement agency, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), is working to shake up public sector procurement, and its technology director, Niall Quinn, promises several changes to the way government and the wider public sector buy from suppliers.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at CCS’s offices in Holborn, Quinn, who joined the procurement agency about a year and a half ago, shares plans to make purchasing frameworks more intuitive, bring more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on board, and release innovation across the public sector.

Or as Quinn simply puts it: “Trying to make CCS easier to do business with.” It is also hosting public sector technology event Digitech18 in Leeds on 31 October, to talk robotics, SMEs and artificial intelligence (AI).  

It’s not always been easy for CCS. The organisation has received criticism in the past from several stances, including suppliers, but has equally saved millions of pounds since its inception. Quinn is the first to admit that CCS may have made itself “overly complicated” and may not have “spent enough time communicating with our customers and suppliers”.

Some things, however, have been hugely successful. Quinn says it’s important to take the parts that have worked really well, examine them to figure out why they worked, and then replicate them across the board.

Since he joined CCS, Quinn says it’s been his mission to “get out there and listen to people’s feedback about what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well”.

Improving cloud buying

Once of the huge successes has been G-Cloud, now in its 10th iteration. Quinn partly puts its success down to the framework being simple and easy to use for buyers and suppliers alike.

“The barriers to entry are really low – it’s supplier self-certification and it’s a catalogue where people can buy what they want. That’s what people want. It’s pretty simple. It’s not that it’s a genius framework, it’s just those attributes are very simple and easy to use,” he says.

Buying cloud hosting is popular in government, and there have been calls for new facilities as procurement needs evolve. CCS wants to respond to market trends and improve its offerings.

As departments buy more and more cloud hosting, they want to get a better price and be able to run further competitions, says Quinn, which they can’t currently do with G-Cloud. Contracts are often two years, with the option to extend twice for one-year periods.

I want to “get out there and listen to people’s feedback about what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well”

Niall Quinn, Crown Commercial Service

“You’re not going to put mission-critical cloud hosting into a contract that short,” he says, adding that those contracts also need to have very specific terms and conditions. To tackle the demand, CCS is building a new agreement.

“We’re going to build a very short, sharp hyper-scale cloud and commercial agreement with all the cloud providers on it, allow buyers to make a shortlist and do further competition to get a better price, a better bang for their buck, more appropriate Ts&Cs and more appropriate contract terms,” he says.

It also hopes to bring more homogeneity across the offerings. Whereas some suppliers won’t ask for “money to change hands” to remove data from their cloud, others will – this is something CCS wants to eradicate.

CCS has begun official market engagement on the project, but still needs to get the go-ahead from the Digital Marketplace for it, because that’s where CCS envisions its home.

The aim, says Quinn, is to launch the agreement between March and June 2019, possibly sooner. “I’d prefer it to be sooner, but we need to make sure we have all the parts together first,” he adds.

Working with SMEs

CCS has also done a huge amount of work trying to get government departments to buy more from SMEs. It launched the Digital Outcomes and Specialists 3 (DOS 3) framework on 1 October, with a whopping 94% of the suppliers on the framework being SMEs.  

Ahead of the launch, CCS did a lot of work with government departments on how to write procurement specifications and being clear about what they want to achieve. With DOS 4, Quinn is hoping to improve even more by introducing electronic feedback from buyers and suppliers. That way, suppliers which didn’t win a certain contract will know more about why, while buyers will be able to find out why suppliers didn’t bid on a certain opportunity.

“Feedback is a valuable tool for both suppliers and buyers,” says Quinn.

CCS has done a lot of work to improve public sector buy-in with SMEs. “It’s a big challenge,” he says, but the organisation spends a lot of time speaking to both government and SMEs about this.

Sometimes it’s SMEs which need help with selling their services in a way that makes buyers want to use them, and other times it’s departments needing to understand why it’s beneficial to work with smaller suppliers.

“Unfortunately, there are some departments that, because of their sensitivity, feel they don't want to work with SMEs,” says Quinn. “But there are other ones where we try to bang the drum.”

Releasing innovation 

One of the key projects CCS is working on is figuring out how to release innovation across government. Often in government and the wider public sector, innovative and exciting pilots fail to progress. This is another thing CCS wants to change.  

Together with Innovate UK, CCS is looking at creating an innovation framework that will help departments take successful pilot projects to an operational level.

“Often, they find a cool SME with a great product that will solve a problem they have, they run a pilot, but don’t know what to do next,” says Quinn. 

Often in government and the wider public sector, innovative and exciting pilots fail to progress – this is something CCS wants to change

“We’ll help them so they will be able to go on to the innovation framework, and give them the additional funding to help them through the operational bid as well. This is within the rules, but also not killing innovation, instead trying to foster it.”

The project, called Spark, will also share projects and results across the public sector. 

“If we can get innovation out of the pilot phase into the operational phase, and test and learn to the next level, that can then feed that small SME a bit more to make them a bit more robust and share the innovation across departments,” Quinn adds. 

Although he admits that CCS is a trading fund and is “supposed to focus on increasing our spend”, and that this particular project won’t really bring in any extra spend, he insists “it’s a really good thing to do”.

The wider public sector

It’s not just central government departments and agencies that can buy from CCS frameworks – they are open to all of the public sector, and even further afield.

CCS has big growth plans in the wider public sector over the next 18 months, particularly when it comes to the disaggregation of big service integrator contracts. Local government is notorious for buying long, 10-year outsourcing deals that often don’t deliver what they should, or don’t fit the needs of the councils.

CCS has, together with one council, built a case study on how to bring people back in-house, get better control of the supplier base and deliver value to the local economy.

Making it easier to buy services and products, filtered and tailored to their specific needs, also helps.

CCS is also looking at other areas, such as Transport for London and Network Rail, which have traditionally sat outside CCS when it comes to IT buying.

The NHS is also a challenging market, with more than 250 NHS trusts all with their own devolved powers. 

Making buying easier

Things rarely stand still at CCS, especially not the focus on building “things that are more appropriate for the marketplace, our buyers and our suppliers”. This is reflected in the third iteration of the Technology Products framework.

“The big change will be a service wrapper inside,” says Quinn. People may want to buy the products, he says, but increasingly they want an end-to-end solution where someone owns the maintenance, the installation and the disposal. 

It’s what suppliers want, he adds. Suppliers want to be able sell their products and provide their expertise, and it makes the whole process more sustainable.

It will also include a filtering feature. For example, a school with 200 pupils could enter that information and it would automatically apply filters so the school would only see suppliers that are appropriate for its size.

CCS is also working on making all of its agreements available online, so when users click on the website, “it’s intuitive and easy to use”, helping them based on what they’re trying to buy, where they’re based and what others in similar situations have bought.

“At that stage you’re trying to help the buyer, using gathered intelligence and machine learning to [help them choose what to] buy. You’re getting value for money, it’s consistent and much easier to maintain,” says Quinn.

But pleasing everyone is not easy. There are multiple stakeholders involved, as well as ministerial input, and things don’t always go to plan. Earlier this year, CCS had to pull the tender for the next stage of development of its Crown Marketplace programme. 

Quinn says the timing just wasn’t right, but there is a need for some form of “electronic place where you can go to buy the various things you need to buy”. He says the organisation is working on a plan.

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