David Mann, Managing Director, dxw digital shares his expert thoughts on making bench contracts work, including the UK Government’s G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) frameworks
The G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes and Specialists (DOS) frameworks are some of the great successes of government tech procurement, thanks to an ethos of agile procurement.
We’ve been on both since they launched and recently noticed a worrying trend of government departments using the Digital Marketplace to procure so-called ‘bench contracts’.
These are where a buyer procures a team or individuals with particular specialisms at short notice. Done the right way, it could be a way to fund teams rather than projects, or take a “one team, many outcomes” approach. But if they go wrong (and they often do) they risk reducing the ability of teams to do good work and as a result, erode the quality of public services. They can disadvantage smaller firms, yet these frameworks were put in place to help the public sector benefit from the agility and innovation of the self-same small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
After 14 years working in central government, I understand commercial realities and why bench contracts are attractive. They offer buyers the flexibility to draw down against existing contracts to bring in teams or individuals to meet challenging deadlines in shifting contexts, without having to engage in drawn-out business cases, procurement exercises, evaluation and everything else required to bring in suppliers.
However, the pressure to spin up teams or provide individuals at very short notice – often two weeks – reinforces short-termism and impacts on quality. Working this way doesn’t help organisations build their own capability or retain history and institutional memory. And no good supplier is going to have a team of great people waiting for a call. They can juggle their schedules to spin up teams quickly, but this means shrinking or swapping teams elsewhere, which will impact on other clients’ projects. Some larger suppliers might have a number of juniors available, but it’s unlikely they will have experienced staff on standby with the capability to build services that meet the Service Standard.
Making it work
At dxw, we always engage constructively to find the right way ahead. Companies who have won contracts like this have the practical experience of how to get the best value from them.
We recently attended a Crown Commercial Service-sponsored event with some of our SME peers where we talked about many of these issues and look forward to more. As a community, we have to get this right or we risk a return to the oligopoly of old where a small number of big suppliers dominate and we all suffer the consequences of poor service delivery.
In the meantime, as bench-style procurements become more common, we’ve identified four things that would help them create better outcomes for both users and buyers and ultimately for all of us as taxpayers.
1) Set realistic start dates
The pressure to start immediately means neither buyer nor suppliers are ready to achieve anything valuable. This means the first few weeks of any engagement are spent getting the team in a position to start work and understand the brief.
Sensible start dates and mobilisation times would give suppliers sufficient time to mobilise the right team for the job. Just as importantly, they would give buyer teams time to be ready to start work.
2) Genuinely work together
Bench contracts require a close partnership and trust to deliver real value for users and buyers alike. That means a partnership where the suppliers can use their expertise to influence and shape the project portfolios to best meet the needs of users. Partnerships can be particularly helpful to build capability and support for smaller and medium-sized organisations, or functions, where a small number of experienced people can make a huge difference to the future success of the work.
Public sector organisations need to work alongside their chosen supplier, as the supplier will not have the knowledge of the business and ability to operate within it without that context. For example, current work with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency is an example of a partnership to deliver a series of projects, all working towards the same organisational goal, that is to become a digital organisation. Therefore, one begins with the confidence that a pipeline of future work lies ahead and can be staffed appropriately.
Buyers need to honestly appraise their internal capability and ability to operate these type of arrangements. Managing a large portfolio of work is hard, even for the most digitally mature organisations. It requires experience to understand the necessary trade-offs and inevitable compromises, while maintaining a focus on user needs and quality.
3) Use the Service Standard
The Service Standard is not a veneer that can be applied after work is done. It must be the bedrock on which the product or service is researched, built and operated. The danger with rapid deployment and the pressure to deliver fast means that corners will be cut. Meeting the Service Standard should not be one of them.
4) Encourage partnerships
One of the ways these contracts could add value is if they are designed to be as friendly as possible to SMEs working together. Different companies bring complementary skill sets and capabilities. For example, we currently partner with Content Design London, AI research consultancy Oxford Insights and Sheffield based researchers Paper.
One company recently won a two-year contract to help Ofsted run discoveries. A specific part of the procurement focused on the other organisations the company worked with and the capabilities and specialisms they brought. There were also questions about how the company could scale to support multiple projects at any one time. The language was key: the buyer was explicit in describing how the opportunity was suitable for SME partnerships. Buyers want to access the best talent available and working with more than one SME is an effective way to do this.
The success of the GCloud and DOS frameworks to date has been because they’ve met the needs of procurer and supplier while providing better services to the end-user. As a community, it’s up to all of us to work together to ensure they continue to do so.