Where is the innovation? Suppliers raise G-Cloud development concerns
Users and developers have questioned if Whitehall is meeting commitments to sufficiently revamp and reshape the cloud services framework to tackle key barriers and issues affecting wider take up
Suppliers and stakeholders with experience of the development and use of the G-Cloud framework have questioned the current direction and pace of innovation between different iterations of the agreement, particularly with the significant overhauls promised for the upcoming ninth version.
One of several frameworks housed on the Digital Marketplace, G-Cloud was devised to allow the public sector to commission commodity cloud services with an aim to broaden the supplier base to include both larger and smaller suppliers.
To this end, the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) announced that G-Cloud 9 had entered its Alpha phase in late October. This followed a discovery phase built around engaging the public sector and suppliers about their key preferences for a more ambitious overhaul of how cloud commodity services can be procured through the framework.
However, a number of stakeholders, particularly from the supplier community, had hoped for a wider ranging ‘discovery process’ to pay more attention to issues such as maximum contract length, local government uptake and whether off the shelf or even open source coding could provide a more effective platform.
After having launched in April, CCS said its Discovery phase to replace G-Cloud 8 had highlighted a need for improved access to guidance documents, and a more efficient means of comparing available services.
Other key considerations indentified during the process were a need to address and provide a more automated means for buyers to create an audit trail using G-Cloud. Many were said to have to manually take screenshots and input spreadsheet data at present.
A chief executive officer for one supplier, who has also held senior roles in local government, said that although they remained a fan of G-Cloud since its initial launch in 2012, there were fundamental areas where the service was not working effectively at present.
The individual said that “fundamental barriers” to be addressed included local authority awareness and the sector’s use of the framework to better address technology issues. Concerns were also raised about small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) engagement.
“We are seeing more business by the tender model at present rather than via G-Cloud,” said the supplier.
This apparent reliance on tenders was seen as creating supply chain barriers for SMEs due to the amount of questions and prep work required, even for smaller value agreements. Up to 600 questions could sometimes be asked for companies wishing to undertake a potential opportunity.
The chief executive added that over the last year, his company had welcomed CCS and the Government Digital Service (GDS) commitments to root and branch reforms of how the framework operates.
While still at Alpha phase, the individual expressed concern that there had been limited overall engagement with the broader marketplace could lead to a “more of the same approach” between different iterations.
This included addressing concerns raised by some, but not universally held, about the maximum length of two years for contracts acquired through G-Cloud.
“From discovery to Alpha, there has been no mention of points that feel critical to the future of the framework,” said the chief executive.
The chief executive added that numerous GOV.UK G-Cloud blogs written on the discovery process has raised a need for better guidance and search functions on the framework, but had failed to note any discussions on higher level issues such as introducing more flexible contract lengths.
They also argued that councils would be among those with the most to gain from a more radical overhaul of G-Cloud's terms and functions, particularly through overcoming a preference for more complex labour intensive tendering.
Among other challenges, the chief executive said that there was still a need to explain and advise potential customers in the public sector on the differences between Digital Outcomes and Specialists and G-Cloud, reflecting a level of confusion around the agreements that could be addressed at Alpha stage.
A senior figure for another G-Cloud supplier also raised concerns about limited engagement opportunities during the Discovery phase for the upcoming framework launch.
The source shared concerns about the current maximum length for contracts obtained via the framework that were not so far being addressed in sessions, limiting the scope of the types of projects that can be supported through the framework and how buyers perceive G-Cloud as a mechanism to procure tactical and not enduring services.
Two year contracts are seen by some buyers as limiting opportunity for more “substantial” contract agreements that can help them meet longer-term cloud first ambitions going forward, added the individual.
“I haven’t seen G-Cloud change in any innovative ways since GDS took responsibility for the framework. There have been no real systematic changes resulting in lost innovation, with the most notable change efforts to tart up the front-end (Of G-Cloud) via the Digital Marketplace.”
Another individual involved with the development of G-Cloud in recent years was critical that the discovery process for the ninth iteration had raised no fresh issues that had not been highlighted in building the first version of the agreement.
“The question to ask is, since G-Cloud 3, has there been any innovation? No,” argued the individual.
The source noted that a key concern would likely be around potential rival technologies and platforms that may supersede and undermine the relevance of G-Cloud as a central and effective means of cloud service procurement, not least at an EU level.
One potential challenge was seen in the amount of money and time currently being spent by GDS on code underpinning the framework, something that could be handled by off-the-shelf or open source alternatives that the source argued could meet the needs of suppliers and buyers. These alternatives could mean involving Amazon Web Services, now one of the world’s largest cloud technology providers.
Best framework of its kind
Harry Metcalfe, managing director of start-up company DXW, said he would have wished to have seen more work in providing stats and analytics through both G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace, as well as better functionality for shortlisting and filtering compared to different iterations.
Metcalfe said that he had not himself spoke or been involved in the discovery phase for G-Cloud 9, but stressed that he would have welcomed more changes being introduced to functionality since the framework was first introduced some four years ago.
However, he accepted that GDS staff would also have been working on the Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) agreement, limiting overall capability.
Among notable concerns he identified were the decision to remove agile development from the framework, and the need to load supplier information within service descriptions on the site.
However, as a supplier, Metcalfe stood by the need for limiting maximum agreement lengths to two years as a means to ensure ongoing competitions in contracts.
He said that G-Cloud has been launched to face regular competition from suppliers to ensure that ongoing changes to the technological landscape and cost were being constantly considered as part of innovation projects.
Metcalfe said that despite backing changes and more significant innovation between the first and ninth iteration of the agreement, the agreement was the best framework the UK public sector has seen with regard to reforming. He noted that he hoped to see a number of changes from G-Cloud being integrated into the third iteration of CCS’ DOS framework, which is also hosted on the Digital Marketplace.
“Even if G-Cloud went unchanged for successive iterations, it would still be a great framework for a number of years,” he said.