The Digital Services Framework is not fit for purpose
Among the government’s most important priorities is the delivery of a new breed of digital by default public services. This is vital work: it’s not just about making services simpler, clearer and faster. It’s also about making them cheaper, so that we can focus our spending on front-line resources. For some public services, it’s of existential importance. Many will struggle to operate sustainably without technology reform, and that’s something that must be addressed.
The Government Digital Service have made extraordinary and inspiring progress towards this goal, but there’s still a long way to go. And supplier companies are a part of that solution: the problem is too big for any one organisation to tackle alone. From individual services to government as a platform, companies will fill in bits of the picture, providing skills, products, and gubbins in close collaboration with technical and user experience experts inside government.
But nobody wants to repeat the mistakes of the past where large, expensive, inflexible companies on long contracts dominated the market. Government wants SMEs to be 25% of its supply chain: smaller suppliers on shorter contracts, who can do more with less. It wants to embed agile principles and work with suppliers that share them.
A new breed of suppliers to the public sector is growing, based on this need: dxw is one such company. But if the whole of government is to be digitally transformed, we’re going to need more. Supporting the growth of the suppliers that government needs in order to succeed is therefore a critical part of its future success.
One of government’s most successful technology programmes is the creation of the G-Cloud framework. Its streamlined approach makes it quick and easy to procure agile development and cloud services, helping government teams to start delivering quickly. It should be a model for procurement reform across government. But instead, Crown Commercial Services (CCS), who own both G-Cloud and DSF, have removed agile development from G-Cloud, making DSF the sole remaining procurement route.
This is problematic, because DSF is a flawed, failed framework.
DSF divides developers, designers, user researchers and delivery managers into different lots. The vast majority of good companies supplying these services will have people in all of those roles, and generally, those people will work together as a team on many projects.
But that’s not the way DSF works. On DSF, you might win one lot in a project and no others. Developers, but no designers. It’s a way to buy people, not projects. The framework is essentially a mechanism for body-shopping, which is just not workable for most suppliers.
A good company is more than the sum total of its staff’s linkedin profiles. As big a part of the quality and effectiveness of a company as its individuals are its culture and its shared experience. Its collective sense of purpose and mission, and its corporate memory. And the effectiveness of its teams, based on their trust, friendship, mutual respect and understanding. In dxw’s experience, clients value these things as much as they value our technical expertise.
Taking a handful of developers from one company, some designers from another, a delivery manager from a third and co-locating them in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar management and unfamiliar process, hoping that they develop the skills of a strong team and then disbanding them after a few months is short-sighted at best, and unworkable at worst. It overlooks the value that can be gained from a close working relationship with an organisation whose skills and values are complementary to those of the buyer.
Instead of contracting with the companies whose experience and culture match or complement those of GDS, CCS have set up a framework which extracts staff from good companies and assumes that the companies themselves have nothing to offer. This bodyshopping approach might solve a short-term problem, but it does so at the expense of weakening the very suppliers who could be government’s most valuable partners.
In so doing, CCS are actively undermining the growth of the market that society needs. If the whole of government is to be digitally transformed (followed shortly by the whole of society) we will need a whole new generation of suppliers to emerge. Helping this market to grow and thrive would increase the number and quality of companies who can supply agile digital services, improving choice for buyers and quality for users.
Not to mention saving money for taxpayers.
We need a framework that nurtures suppliers who share the culture and approach of GDS, helping them to grow, thrive and multiply. We need a framework that’s designed to serve the user needs of buyers and suppliers who are getting things done.
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.
We need to abandon DSF, reinstate development in G-Cloud, and get on with delivering.