Interview: Director of the central procurement platform Warren Smith talks about ambitions to attract more buyers from beyond Whitehall and to make it adaptable for overseas governments
It’s two years since Warren Smith stepped into the role of director of the Digital Marketplace. He’s pleased with the progress made, but he thinks it is time to spread its wings.
Talking with UKAuthority he makes clear that he sees plenty of opportunity for the procurement platform to appeal to more buyers and suppliers of digital services, and to extend it geographically.
An achievement frequently talked up since it was launched in 2014 is that it has helped SMEs take a larger share of the government market. The most recent figures, for the end of March, are impressive for their volume share across the Digital Marketplace’s three categories – 70% in G-Cloud, 81% in Digital Outcomes and Specialists and 62% in Digital Services – and respectable for value, at 48%, 35% and 48% respectively.
But Smith sees the scope to get more from the relationship between the public sector and smaller companies, and says there are two big elements to expanding the potential.
“First, you have to create the opportunity for a more diverse supply chain to be able to do business with government,” he says. “That’s very much what our focus has been, to lower the barriers to entry, to make government a more attractive proposition for a broader range of suppliers, by demonstrating we want to simplify and make it a more compelling opportunity for small, medium and large suppliers.
“Two is that when you have created that sizeable pool you look at how you make it as simple, clear and fast as possible for public sector buyers to contract and work with a broad range of suppliers. There are two stages in the process, around the design of CCS framework agreements – and we’ve been working on that for many years – and on building capability and capacity in the buyer community in government to take a different approach to commissioning services.
“For example, it’s moving away from highly detailed requirements and long procurements, to more problem based requirements where they say ‘This is what I want to achieve’ and encourage the conversation with the market. This is where it lines up with things like the Technology Code of Practice and Digital Service Standard.
“If there’s an assumption of disaggregation breaking down large long term contracts into smaller short term deliverables you create an opportunity that favours a broader range of suppliers.”
There is an element here of ensuring the procurement requirements and contracts reflect advances in technology. It is the most fast moving area in terms of innovation, which requires more flexibility in terminology and the nature of what is required than for most areas.
“You have to look at what’s appropriate for the category and the rate of change in its market,” Smith says. “It’s something we talked about in an earlier blogpost. It’s not creating a strait-jacket, but something that’s flexible and adaptable and can apply to the relevant context.”
Then comes the issue of changing what he acknowledges as a widely held perception of the Digital Marketplace, that it works mainly for central government. While it is open to the wider public sector, the sales figures indicate that it is much more widely used by Whitehall, which has accounted for 83% of the value of sales through G-Cloud, 89% through Digital Outcomes and Specialists and 92% through Digital Services.
Smith says initiatives are under way that he hopes will level out the balance. The Government Digital Service (GDS) – within which the Digital Marketplace is run – is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on a more collaborative approach to developing standards and platforms and has a series of roadshows due to begin soon.
“That’s an opportunity for the wider public sector to benefit from the innovations and advancements from GDS,” he says.
He also says that even services on the platform that are specific to central government can be examples of best practice that others can follow and highlights the example of the development of the Local Government Digital Standard on the basis of the Whitehall model.
“It’s about overcoming the perception, with standards developed in central government but are increasingly recognised across the public sector to help drive good design and delivery, collaboration, sharing and re-use,” he says.
Then comes the prospect of taking the Digital Marketplace global. The plan to make it available to other national governments was flagged up earlier this year as a way to make procurement more transparent.
Smith says the first introduction event has taken place, and his team has been talking with potential partners from other countries, focusing on improvements in procurement and stifling the scope for any corruption.
“We’re still very much in the pre-delivery and design phase, establishing what the feasibility is likely to look like, but we are making excellent progress with the engagement of those countries and building a compelling picture.
“It’s still early days but we hope to be able to share some of these findings very soon.”
He adds that any offer will be tailored to what individual countries need, and is likely to go further than the procurement platform itself.
“It covers the pre-procurement planning phase of designing plans of activity, procurement and contract design to provide the right route to market, post-contract awards to ensure delivery against standards, and helping to build capability and capacity in the civil service and the supply chain to help them deliver their own transformations.
“It’s a broader offering but the Digital Marketplace is central to that.”
Supporting CCS programme
Another significant initiative is taking shape on the domestic front. Smith says the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) is drawing on the experience of the Digital Marketplace in developing its Crown Marketplace programme for the procurement of common goods and services.
“We’re trying to help them think about the capabilities they need internally for the transformation, how they can work through the high level objectives to set the context for what it can mean. For example, in the re-use of other government platforms and better use of data.
“That’s a really important consideration. From a Cabinet Office perspective it sets the stage for what a transformation should look like.”
He points towards the Government Transformation Strategy as informing some of the work, with one its priorities being a step change in procurement by building on the work of the Digital Marketplace. This includes an emphasis on user centred design, data driven and open approaches in public procurement.
“Using that approach in creating a marketplace with a better user experience,” is how Smith describes it.
“It’s building on the approaches we have, what we’ve been able to do that has enabled a successful approach for buying cloud and digital services that has enabled a significant diversification of the supply chain over the past six years. It’s looking at how we build on those approaches to achieve the delivery of the Crown Marketplace programme.”
If there’s one message that comes across most strongly from the conversation it’s that he is unlikely to ever regard the work on the platform as complete.
“I absolutely see the Digital Marketplace as being something evolves, looking much broader than the platform itself,” he says.
“It’s about how different elements such as sourcing, strategic categories, operations and policy come together in a way that is focused on user needs and are able to focus on the skillset GDS has held. It’s on an evolutionary journey, and I’m looking forward to what we achieve in next 12-18 months.”
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0