Over the past couple of weeks, the UK government has issued a large amount of guidance around the use of the Digital Marketplace and the Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework.
The Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework – or DO&S (as we will call it for simplicity’s sake) – is designed to provide “outcomes, specialists and user research services for digital projects. There are over 1,200 suppliers on the Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework. Digital Outcomes and Specialists services include:
– digital outcomes, eg a booking system or an accessibility audit
– digital specialists, eg a product manager or a developer
– user research studios
– user research participants.”
Access to this framework is through the wider “Digital Marketplace” which also includes the G-Cloud for cloud services and the Crown Hosting Data Centres framework.
There are a number of interesting aspects to this. For a start, the design of this framework is very much on the same lines as the G-Cloud. It is not a “traditional” framework in which the selection of the framework suppliers is quite detailed and onerous, leading to a limited number of successful participants. Instead, qualification is pretty straightforward; it is more about meeting a quite low threshold to gain a listing as an “approved supplier” – hence the “1200 suppliers” listed.
That brings a number of benefits, principally greater choice for buyers and an easy route to market for many suppliers. But the guidance issued recently does highlight the downside of the approach. Under EU and indeed UK procurement regulations, the correct use of frameworks is defined quite carefully. In particular, the buyer should not just choose their favourite firm from the list – instead, the contracting authority should run a “mini-competition” which gives all the suppliers who are capable of meeting the need the chance to offer their proposal. All proposals must then be evaluated fairly.
The guidance published recently by Cabinet Office advises authorities how to handle that process. Indeed, it is the most detailed guidance around the topic of evaluation that we have seen from the UK policy folk in some years – as we have commented previously, the “lean procurement” guidance from a few years back was very light on this, somewhat surprisingly as it is such a key issue.
So this new information takes the buyer through the whole process of choosing a supplier from the DO&S framework, from preparing requirements to selection and de-briefing. There are a couple of issues though that might make public procurement geeks (like us) question the process. The guidance says “Filter by location to reduce the number of suppliers.” Now if that is a supplier saying they only operate in a certain part of the country, then that is fine – but you cannot simply say “I only want a supplier in my region, city or town”. That would clearly be discriminatory and indeed would run counter to some very fundamental EU principles.
We do also wonder just how big the field of potential suppliers is going to be. With 1200 listed, the “mini-competition” might not be very “mini” at all. A contracting authority might end up needing to run a process that is pretty much as complex as starting from scratch with an end-to-end procurement.
The temptation therefore might be for users to see this as a catalogue from which a favoured supplier can simply be appointed – the way frameworks used to be operated back in the bad old days before the EU started defining some rules around their usage. Procurement departments in many organisations have been downsized so resource to run procurement exercises is limited. Which leads onto another thought – really, this process cries out for some intelligent automation, “guided buying” or artificial intelligence support even. We suspect that is very much on the Crown Commercial Service agenda, but is not there yet.
Anyway, it is good to see guidance around the evaluation process, which as we said above, has been a bit of a gap in the portfolio of generally useful advice from Crown Commercial Service. However, we do have one more issue with the methodology proposed, which we will come back to on part 2. It is a weakness that we have discussed before, and one that might even give cause for legal challenge against any contract awarded via the suggested process.