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Interview: CCS director Sarah Hurrell on improving government technology purchasing

The government's procurement agency has plenty of critics, but its technology lead insists that IT and digital purchasing is improving fast

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You would think a purchasing department that saved £5.9bn in a year would be rather popular. But for the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), the government’s central procurement agency launched on 2 April 2014, its first 12 months in existence saw criticisms flying in from all angles.

At least £220m of those savings came from IT – and yet, since its inception, CCS has been labelled dysfunctional, accused of undermining plans to buy more from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and described as “perhaps the last and least forward-thinking people in government” by one disgruntled supplier executive.

It hasn’t helped that CCS has rarely been allowed to defend itself publicly. Read through most of the Computer Weekly articles about CCS – click on some of the links in that previous paragraph, for example – and you won’t find any CCS executives quoted. The Cabinet Office has kept them quietly under lock and key, hidden behind bland press office statements.

So when Computer Weekly was offered the opportunity to meet with Sarah Hurrell, the CCS commercial director for technology – effectively the senior IT procurement leader in Whitehall – there was plenty to discuss. Let’s start with those widely aired criticisms.

Hurrell believes there was an expectation that CSS was going to be able to change agreements – even those that had been running for three of a five-year contract – and fix everything overnight.

“People still think we’re doing things wrong, rather than noticing what we’re doing right. It’s a culture change for CCS, so it’s down to us to tell people what we are doing right,” she says.

Changing buyer behaviour

The challenge is as much about changing buyer behaviour as it is about procurement processes, says Hurrell.

“Some of the criticisms were fair for the old organisation – only some, not all of them. Some might still be fair in places, but that might be because we’re in service of our [government] customers. 

“If a customer wants a 20-year agreement with a systems integrator, we can advise [it’s not] best practice, but if they get it through spend controls then that’s their choice,” she says.

I frequently go home with a smile on my face thinking I’ve just saved millions of pounds for the taxpayer

Sarah Hurrell, CCS

“There are occasions where it’s not what we want them to do, but it’s inappropriate for us to treat customers like [we’re] a schoolmaster and tell them off. 

“As we build our credibility, people will trust our guidance more and understand that we know what we’re talking about, so we can help them do a better job as well,” she adds.

At times, the criticism has clearly stung: “I sometimes feel like I’m in an inner-city school where people think it’s OK to chuck abuse at you and tell you all the things you’re doing wrong – and not for them to recognise all the great stuff you’re doing.

“It’s hard work because you have a lot of people complaining. Sometimes it’s a Hobson’s choice to upset this person or that person. If I can sleep at night, that’s my measure of success,” she says.

Simplifying frameworks

Hurrell’s focus for the past year has been to simplify the dizzying array of technology purchasing frameworks into something that makes it easy to use for government clients, and simpler for small suppliers to win business. 

Her team is responsible for “common goods and services” and uses the economies of scale of public sector purchasing power to get the best deals possible for technology products and services. Any bespoke purchases remain the responsibility of departments, but CCS can be brought in to advise. 

None of the work CCS does is mandatory for Whitehall decision-makers. Instead, it has to prove its worth and make sure buying through CCS means getting the best deal – commercially and legally. CCS is funded via commissions from the buying departments, therefore it needs to deliver value for their money.

Hurrell joined the civil service in November 2013 at CCS’s predecessor, the Government Procurement Service. At that time, there were 26 different procurement frameworks for IT. By the end of 2015, that will be down to eight.

“What I’m hoping you’ll notice is the simplification I tried to bring. When I landed, it felt like [I was reading] Dalek with all the three- and four-letter acronyms. 

“Now, I have technology products, technology services, digital services and G-Cloud – I’d love to just call it cloud, but everybody knows the brand G-Cloud – and I have network services. Those are my key agreements,” she says.

Her team is also responsible for software licensing deals, saving £85m in the past year through auditing departmental estates.

“In the past, we’ve asked for inside leg measurements from suppliers. They provided them, but it cost us a lot and we ended up paying too much because we either ‘gold-plated’ the terms and conditions or we asked for too much data. 

“Part of it is trying to understand what’s appropriate and what would be easy for suppliers to deliver so it’s cost effective for them and us,” she says.

Opening up to SME suppliers

Another priority in IT purchasing has been to create a better balance between smaller suppliers and the big, traditional sellers that have dominated government technology spending for so long, as well as support the digital by default policy led by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

“I’m passionate about small businesses – I was a small business [owner[ myself once, running a consultancy company. I understand how hard it is when you start as a small business and how hard it is to understand the rules,” says Hurrell.

“Of the agreements under my watch, it’s typically 30% or more that are small businesses, up to around 80% on some. And that’s not bad,” she says.

The new network services framework has 31% SMEs, which is up from 16% on its predecessors. G-Cloud has 87%, the Digital Services Framework (DSF) has 83% and the Local Authority Software Applications agreement has 72%. Some SMEs have won so much government IT business, they are no longer classified as SMEs.

Despite this, some SMEs complain it is too difficult to do business with Whitehall – not least with DSF, which was widely criticised by the agile software companies it was designed to engage. However, a consultation for a new version of DSF was announced on 22 July 2015. 

“Sometimes it’s difficult for a small business to understand that, although they are incredibly important, we have to service both [sides] and make it simple for suppliers and the customer needs,” says Hurrell.

She says some of the press reported unfairly on DSF, making it sound like it was hated and did not work for SMEs.

“Our customer satisfaction on the digital services framework was running between 8.6 and 9.1 out of 10 – everybody had an opportunity to give feedback. You’re trying to equate what it says in the media with what the data says. 

“There used to be 70 pages of paperwork to fill in – it’s currently down to about 12. It’s not perfect and it probably should be less. But it is an iterative journey and we have to keep the business running and able to buy things while we make changes,” she says.

Changing supplier behaviour

But bringing in more SMEs is not just about altruism towards small businesses – it’s also intended to force a change of behaviour among the large IT companies that are perceived to have abused their dominance in government through over-priced contracts and technology lock-ins.

One example Hurrell cites is mobile phone contracts, where suppliers used to keep the devices locked to their networks at the end of the deal: “If you’ve paid for your phone, why should it be locked?

“We’re looking after taxpayers’ money, but if we can show people there is a better way forward, that's good. We talk a lot to our strategic suppliers about the percentage of SMEs they subcontract to. 

“We talk about payment terms and whether they pay quickly and we set the bar for what we expect from a strategic supplier. They might not always deliver it, but we set a clear expectation,” says Hurrell.

According to Hurrell, CSS saw a substantial behaviour shift in price point with the network services framework because people realised it was more competitive than previous vehicles. 

“We are seeing an understanding from strategic suppliers that they have to behave appropriately to small businesses and smaller entities in government,” she says.

“There is also a point where we have to be careful we don’t end up in big-boy bashing, so it’s a fine line. As a government, we often ask the larger players to take a big commercial risk – to take on a huge amount of funding up front, and we’re not always the easiest or most transparent organisation to do business with. 

“Part of what we’re trying to do is help departments make sure they are not inadvertently gold-plating or putting hurdles in place that mean only the big players can bid,” she says.

Everybody loves G-Cloud

And then there’s G-Cloud. It’s unusual to say that an IT purchasing framework is loved, but G-Cloud brings some IT chiefs – and some SME suppliers – to outbursts of delight. 

Launched in 2012, G-Cloud came to embody the desire to find new ways of delivering technology in Whitehall, bringing price transparency and innovative SME suppliers, as well as forcing the big players to be more competitive.

G-Cloud’s supporters are hugely protective. When CCS changed the Twitter handle for the G-Cloud team and removed the name, a minor Twitter outburst ensued, with fans seeing conspiracy theories everywhere and warning of the end of G-Cloud.

“The vitriol we had when someone changed the Twitter handle was incredible. It was fascinating to see the passion around it,” says Hurrell.

We are seeing an understanding from strategic suppliers that they have to behave appropriately to small businesses
Sarah Hurrell, CCS

But she is clear G-Cloud is not a remedy for all technology purchasing ills. Instead, it’s an example of how a good procurement framework should be.

“It was almost like a fervent belief – a sacrilege to say G-Cloud is not fit for purpose for anything – [as if] you should be able to buy your paper clips on it. The clue is in the name – it’s government cloud and a procurement framework, with GDS running the programme at the front end,” she says.

Hurrell believes G-Cloud's position in the marketplace is confused, with people seeing it as either about digital or agile, and regarding it as the panacea for everything.

“When people say they hate frameworks and they hate CCS, but they love G-Cloud, that’s a dichotomy – it is a CCS framework. I wouldn't criticise people for their varied perceptions of it as they may be valid, but to me, it is a commercial vehicle for cloud services,” she says.

Listening to feedback

For Hurrell, the distinctions are clear. If you want cloud products and services, or consultancy for moving to cloud, then use G-Cloud. If you want agile developers to work on a project, then use DSF. If you just want “bums on seats” – short-term contractors with specific skills – use a separate framework called Contingent Labour One (CL1).

And therein lies the challenge, what with misperceptions around G-Cloud, criticisms of DSF and downright anger towards CL1, which has been attacked for costing SMEs millions of pounds in lost sales. CL1 is not part of Hurrell’s remit, but she acknowledges there are problems with the Capita-run agreement.

“The feedback [on CL1] has not been ignored, there’s a lot of activity to try to make sure we come up with something very clear. That’s something CCS can do – listen to the feedback and work out what to do next,” she says.

“Will we always get everything right first time? No, but if we iteratively improve then that’s as much as you can ask. It would be nice if people occasionally cut us a bit of slack, we are only a 15-month-old organisation,” she adds.

Are the criticisms of CCS justified? Time will tell – but clearly the organisation is aware of what people think and has a vision for government procurement it believes will change those perceptions. After all, £5.9bn of savings is quite a carrot to dangle in front of austerity-hit public servants.

“If people just lob bricks at you all the time, some days you think, ‘Why don’t I go back to the private sector?’. I’ve definitely had a few days like that. You’re paid more there for an easier job, but there is a vocational element to this. 

“In 2014, my team increased our savings by 70% on the previous year, which is quite substantial – you think, ‘That’s so many doctors, nurses, teachers’ – it is very rewarding and satisfying,” says Hurrell.

“Procurement generally is not something people see as a particularly sexy career, but I frequently go home with a smile on my face thinking I’ve just saved millions of pounds for the taxpayer.”

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