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A G-Cloud “masterclass” featuring speakers from the civil service has been postponed, having been marketed as offering attendees a “significant and unfair advantage” for securing business through the government procurement framework.
The half-day event, due to take place in June, was to form part of the Business of Software Europe conference in Cambridge, and several civil servants were set to present.
They included Stephen Allott, the Cabinet Office Crown representative for SMEs; Mark O’Neill, deputy director for transformation at the Ministry of Justice; and James Findlay, CIO of the government-backed HS2 high-speed rail scheme.
They, along with several other “key” government procurement experts, would – according to the event’s marketing material – provide attendees with a “significant and unfair advantage” in winning more business through G-Cloud.
The wording caused a degree of consternation among the G-Cloud supplier community, sources told Computer Weekly. This, combined with the trio’s presence and the fact the paid-for event was only open to 30 people, meant they feared it could infringe on EU procurement rules.
These state that all public sector procurements must be carried out in an open, transparent and fair way, with all suppliers treated equally. Some public sector buyers have previously expressed concerns about whether G-Cloud fully conforms to EU rules.
A miss-marketed opportunity
Frank Jennings, a partner specialising in cloud and technology commercial contracts at legal firm Wallace, said the “inference” that attendees might get an “unfair advantage” may not sit well with the EU.
“It’s unlikely anyone would get an unfair advantage in G-Cloud as a result of attending this event, but it doesn’t look good from a procurement regulation compliance point of view, having an event which has representatives of the government or civil servants attending that proclaims you’d get some ‘significant and unfair advantage’ by attending,” he told Computer Weekly.
“It probably isn’t going to result in the compromised integrity of anyone involved. It’s just a case of a marketer getting a little carried away with themselves, and the ‘unfair advantage’ being in a room with these individuals might give to those who attend.”
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This was a view shared by Chris Farthing, director of public sector and G-Cloud procurement advisory firm Advice Cloud, who described the use of the “unfair advantage” phrase as “misguided” in the context of who would be presenting.
“It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles of government procurement,” he said, adding that this shouldn’t detract from the good work the civil servants set to attend had done in the past.
“Stephen Allott has done an awful lot to move the SME agenda, especially in regards to G-Cloud, and we sincerely hope he is able to continue that work,” said Farthing.
Nicky Stewart, commercial director at G-Cloud supplier Skyscape Services, said it’s doubtful the civil servants down to speak at the event would have been aware of how it was being marketed or that it would cost attendees close to £200 to attend.
“While arguably this approach does not sit comfortably with EU procurement regulation, I think it is more to do with the way the organisers have chosen to market the workshops, rather than any intent on the part of the government representatives,” Stewart added.
Cabinet Office intervention
Concerns about the event’s marketing were communicated to the government, the sources added, while a Cabinet Office spokesman told Computer Weekly that it had requested the event’s cancellation.
On the morning of Thursday 11 June, the details of the event were removed from the Business of Software Europe event page, and its organiser – The Business Leaders Network (BLN) – confirmed it had been postponed.
BLN founder Mark Littlewood denied the event had infringed on any public sector procurement rules, and that the wording the suppliers may have taken umbrage to was simply the result of “overenthusiastic copywriting” rather than anything more duplicitous.
“I’ve been working with the Cabinet Office and various people around G-Cloud for a number of years. We know a lot of people in the industry, and the simple fact is the ‘unfair advantage’ you have is simply by being in the G-Cloud,” he said.
“Most organisations I know, or a lot of the ones I know, haven’t heard of [G-Cloud] or understood what it is about or get a benefit back from it.”
His company has been in contact with the Cabinet Office, and plans to work with them to deliver the event so that its content is more accessible to a wider number of suppliers.
“The last thing we want to do is annoy people. It’s not our style. We’re an ethical company and want to do the right thing, and the Cabinet Office does as well,” he said.
“The plan is to run this and make it more open, either by streaming the talks or recording the discussions and making them more open to people. We want to build a programme and build some activity that lets our network and people we work with know about the opportunity to sell to the government, because a lot of companies wouldn’t dream of selling to the public sector because the process is reputed to be so tortuous and difficult to negotiate.”
Wallace's Jennings said the firm should tread more carefully next time around, with regard to how it markets the postponed event.
“There’s obviously the inherent desire of people marketing events to portray them in the most positive light possible to get people to attend, but what they have to do is market it in a positive way without inferring there is any significant and unfair advantage as a result of attending,” he said.
“If marketing suggests attendees will get access to the decision-makers of G-Cloud, and that might ultimately influence their application to join or contracts ordered under it, that’s always going to be unhelpful, as it might not look like an honest, fair and open procurement.”