Cementing G-Cloud's position in government

Since the G-Cloud launched back in February 2012, much has changed. At the very beginning no-one really knew if it was going to work and many people doubted whether it could become the vehicle for changing the way that IT is bought and supplied in Whitehall. Would buyers really be able to purchase commodity software from an SME at a tenth of the price of a large supplier? It seemed highly unlikely at the time, given the decades of purchasing habits that had preceded its launch.

Low confidence was also evident from the suppliers listed on the framework, with some big names notably missing, and the general rhetoric around how little was spent via CloudStore during the first 12 months.

However, that is no longer the case. Thanks to some very vocal, very high profile supporters of the programme within government, some amazing use cases of departments saving millions of pounds and the introduction of a cloud-first policy, spend slowly began to creep and word of the G-Cloud began to spread.

The UK public sector has now spent over £200 million via the framework and has a very strong group of supporters behind it – including some well-informed buyers in central government and a number of suppliers that recognise that they now have an new opportunity to sell into government, something that had previously seemed impossible.

But it hasn’t all been rosy in recent months. There has been a wave of discontent growing around the G-Cloud, especially since responsibility for the programme was moved out of the Cabinet Office and into the Government Digital Service. Many have begun to worry that the foot has been taken off the pedal and there is a distinct lack of momentum behind the programme.

This is worrying because although the G-Cloud has grown and spend is increasing, compared to the total IT spend in Whitehall, it’s a drop in the ocean. Survey after survey also highlights how few people still know about the programme (especially across local government) and there is a general election next year, which will inevitably cause some level of disruption.

As a result, we need to all work together to cement the G-Cloud as the main procurement vehicle for buying IT in Whitehall. Buyers, suppliers, GDS and the media need to highlight the problems and work through solutions to ensure that the G-Cloud becomes the tool that it was intended to become.

Yesterday I attended a EuroCloud event, which was full of members that were passionate about the G-Cloud cause. There were a lot of positive comments, especially from suppliers praising the way in which the framework has enabled them to sell into government like never before. However, there was also plenty of constructive criticism.

As a result, I thought it might be useful to pull some of the main themes from the event together and put together an action plan for how we can work to make the G-Cloud great.

Please note – this isn’t meant as a criticism of GDS alone – buyers and suppliers are also at fault, and everyone needs to work hard at the following points in order to cement the success of the G-Cloud.

Education, education, education – This was the main theme from the EuroCloud event this week and accurately reflects the concerns highlighted in Stuart’s special report. The general consensus is that GDS isn’t currently doing enough to promote the benefits of the G-Cloud in Whitehall and to the wider public sector. Whilst we have had assurances from programme leader Tony Singleton that this is being ramped up (and to be fair, it’s still the summer season), what we need to see over the next 12 months is a huge education and engagement programme across all government departments, so that buyers can learn about how to use the framework.

Moving from an old way of things to a a consumption model and getting procurement to buy-in to the benefits can be hard, but a strong education programme can ease the pain.

Success stories and use cases also need to be heavily promoted. This was one of the main reasons that the G-Cloud grew in popularity in its first year – but there seems to have been a distinct lack of them in recent months. Find those success stories, find the charismatic people in government that can promote them and push them out as hard as you can. Having those success stories out there will also help the media to report on why the G-Cloud is a great tool – we want to write about the programme, but we are currently given very little to work with.

Concerns over Lot 4 – The vast majority of spend via the G-Cloud has been on Lot 4 (Specialist Cloud Services). This basically means that most of the spend hasn’t actually been on commodity cloud products, most of the money has been spent on consulting, agile coaching and even software development. This needs to change.

But, this was also expected. Speakers at the event yesterday that have been directly involved in the G-Cloud programme since its beginnings said that spend on these services was inevitable, as departments have needed help to understand how they can transition from their complex legacy systems to a cloud-based model. Pete Middleton, who was in the G-Cloud’s original team, said that Lot 4 should be seen as the tip of the iceberg, and now we need to figure out how to get departments spending serious money on the rest.

Research needs to be carried out on what the problems are in getting to the stage where more spend is going on Lots 1 to 3 and how GDS can get departments to this level of maturity.

Departments should create transition strategies – This feeds directly into the previous point. Departments need to spend time understanding the complexities of their legacy systems and develop plans to ensure that they know how they are going to transition to new models that rely on cloud services, which are purchased through the G-Cloud. These plans and this intelligence then needs to be fed into the market, so that suppliers understand what they need to do to help government departments and public sector buyers get there.

This intelligence isn’t currently available and departments shouldn’t be ‘winging it’ as they go along. Pressure needs to be applied so that plans and timelines are produced.

GDS needs to be prepared to work with suppliers – One of the other points raised at the event this week was that the Government Digital Service doesn’t know how to work with the supplier community. To date, GDS has become an incredible force in Whitehall that has developed an excellent reputation for its ability to build digital services that are brilliantly designed. And it should be applauded for that.

However, it can’t just be a software house. If it really wants the G-Cloud to work it needs to take time to speak to the broader IT community to understand what the real issues are and how it can help departments to better work with its suppliers.

At the end of the day, departments aren’t going to be able to build everything on their own, so if the G-Cloud is going to be the tool to engage with the market, then discussions with suppliers need to be open and frequent.

Security – To date, the G-Cloud has relied on pan-government accreditation for services listed on the framework. This basically means that buyers purchasing from the G-Cloud know that the services have gone through a rigorous process to ensure they are safe for use in the public sector.

However, this has created problems. With the list of suppliers and services increasing exponentially with every iteration of the G-Cloud, bottlenecks have emerged and it is becoming increasingly difficult to push suppliers through the process.

This has resulted in GDS consulting on an idea to effectively let suppliers and buyers ‘mark their own homework’. Essentially, suppliers will be charged with the responsibility to show how they meet strict government security requirements and buyers will be responsible for checking these are accurate. This would solve the problem of bottlenecks.

However, as one supplier noted yesterday, if some become lax with this approach and a high-profile security incident occurs, with some important data being lost, this could cause suppliers to back away from the G-Cloud all together.

The implications of this need to be seriously thought through.

Leadership – There have been some big losses for the G-Cloud, with regards to leadership. Most notably Chris Chant, Denise McDonagh and Stephen Kelly – all of which were strong advocates and evangelists of the programme. They shouted loudly and people were listening. They also made sure that hurdles to its success caused by government bureaucracy and a desire to stick to the old way of doing things were dealt with quickly (and publicly).

There was a great deal concern at the recent loss of Stephen Kelly as government COO, as he had played a big part in dealing effectively with suppliers. It emerged yesterday (by coincidence) that government chief procurement officer, Bill Crothers, will now pick up a lot of this responsibility under a new role as chief commercial officer. I don’t know as much about Crothers, but let’s hope he recognises the importance of the G-Cloud programme and can drive change and break down barriers across departments, GDS and the Crown Commercial Service.

The government needs to find its new evangelists and needs to start pushing them out there on the conference circuit and get them speaking to buyers, suppliers and the media. If this doesn’t happen there will be a big black hole where those key people once were.

The G-Cloud brand – GDS is currently building a new front end for the G-Cloud and some other digital frameworks, which will be called the Digital Marketplace. It hasn’t been made clear as to whether or not the G-Cloud name will be dropped when this goes live, but it has certainly been implied.

There is a great deal of concern about this. Not only is the G-Cloud recognised internationally by governments and the private sector, but if the name is dropped, awareness in the public sector will drop dramatically.

Although all research indicates that more can be done to raise the profile of the G-Cloud across government departments and the public sector in general, at least we are two years into promoting this brand. Are we really going to drop it and start all over again with the Digital Marketplace? I really hope not.

I’m not saying don’t call the front end the Digital Marketplace, but I would urge that the name of the G-Cloud is retained. This was strongly supported by many at the EuroCloud event this week.

Verdict

I really hope this doesn’t come across as a ‘know it all’ list of how I think the G-Cloud could improve. It is intended as an honest reflection of the concerns in the community at present and I am a firm believer in transparently discussing problems to ensure that we can move on to better things. This may further the discussion.