Is G-Cloud fit for purpose?

Romy Hughes, director at Brightman, considers what else the government can do to accelerate the digitisation of public services and improve its G-Cloud offering

From our recent analysis of the government’s procurement approach (Taking the brakes off: How SMEs can be unleashed to drive the rapid digitisation of the public sector), we shared our criticisms of the numerous framework agreements that have been established in recent years to make it easier for businesses to bid for government contracts.

The UK public sector currently spends in excess of £200 billion on procuring goods and services from third parties every year, but despite its efforts, a disproportionate amount of this is still spent with the same large outsourcers. The government has committed to spending 33 per cent of public sector procurement directly with SMEs by 2022, and has launched numerous framework agreements to support this aim. The government can also be applauded for creating the Government Digital Service (GDS) – the Cabinet Office ‘centre of excellence’ which aims to drive the digital transformation of government across all departments.

The government’s commitment to the digitisation of public services, and the democratisation of its procurement procedures are beyond question. However, with many businesses – and SMEs in particular – still locked out of most public sector contracts, we believe there is more work to be done. Improving the G-Cloud framework is a good place to start.

The problem of design
Now in its 10th iteration, a stated aim of the G-Cloud framework was to improve access for SMEs. While it started well – with 80 per cent of its suppliers said to be SMEs, this has not necessarily translated into proportionate sales for SMEs. The most recent sales figures show that only 56% of total sales by value were awarded to SMEs in G-Cloud 9, leaving 44 per cent of value to be picked up by a handful of the usual suspects.

From our analysis, the fundamental challenge of the G-Cloud framework is a technical one – it doesn’t support the way in which SMEs actually generate business (and likewise, how government customers like to find suppliers). As a platform, the G-Cloud is unwieldy, difficult to navigate, has an ineffective search engine and often fails to match contracts to the most relevant suppliers. At the same time, there is not enough of an incentive for public sector purchasers to use it, so a lot of business is still awarded outside of the framework anyway.

It ain’t no Google…
The G-Cloud struggles to manage the sheer volume of suppliers listed on the platform (2,847 were approved for G-Cloud 9 for example) with a search function that is largely ineffective at matching the most relevant suppliers for a given task. The G-Cloud therefore fails at its primary role as the matchmaker between buyers and suppliers. Government purchasers are often forced to enlist the services of a third party just to help them navigate the G-Cloud and find the right SME suppliers to solve their problem. If you have to hire consultants to use your own tools, clearly something has gone very wrong indeed!

Additional deficiencies in the search function include:
- Filters are either not relevant (e.g. sellers/resellers) or are not business-solution focused, making it very difficult to find what you want. Common business and technology terms are not listed on the platform so buyers cannot filter for the solution they need. If you are looking for a change management expert to help manage the delivery of a major new system for example, you’re out of luck, because “change management” does not exist as a category.

- The same is true for ‘digital transformation’. Such terminology is very broad and means different things to different people. The tendency is to assume that ‘digital’ just means IT when actually it can mean a large organisational change process involving not just the usual IT elements. Introducing a definition of the terms used might be a step forward towards consistency of use and understanding.

- Search results do not appear to be in any discernible order. It is unclear on what basis the G-Cloud search engine algorithm prioritises its results, making it nigh-on-impossible for government buyers to use the platform to shortlist the most relevant suppliers. This is also highly detrimental for suppliers who invest significant time in building their G-Cloud listings when they do not know how effective their listing will be.

- Many service categories do not align to real-world use cases because it can take years for the latest IT trends and terminologies to be reflected on the platform. This forces innovative suppliers to shoehorn their proposition into a category which is not truly reflective of their service offering, ultimately making them harder to find.

- The Government Digital Service is trying hard to get a consistent message out to public sector organisations, but with so many different framework agreements to choose from, each with their own flavour and terms, the choice for buyers and suppliers is too great. This leads to inconsistency of contract terms for the same work and a fall back to describing work in a particular way that only those directly involved in it can truly understand and perhaps, bid for successfully.

Fundamentally, all of these factors mean the G-Cloud is currently failing to achieve its core objective of matching government buyers with the most appropriate suppliers for their needs. Reform is therefore urgently needed to not only help SMEs to break into the public sector, but to achieve the government’s own ambitions to drive the digitisation of the UK public sector as a whole.

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