User discussion forums and a team of staff checking that suppliers can live up to their claims are among current and planned quality safeguards for services sold on the G-cloud, delegates heard at the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) annual conference last week.
These rare details of the "policing" side of G-Cloud were described by Tony Singleton, Director of Digital Commercial Programme at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
Singleton was responding to a concern raised in colourful terms by one delegate, who urged: "I would like more focus on quality. There are a lot of crap suppliers on the G-cloud, and I want a clear idea of whether these are people the government should be dealing with."
In response, Singleton said his team was planning a discussion forum where G-Cloud users can recommend the best suppliers, and warn people off the ones to whom the aforementioned more negative adjective might apply.
"We want to create a service where buyers can talk to others, put buyers in touch with buyers and IT team in touch with IT teams - it is through collaboration that you are going to work out who are the real quality suppliers", he said.
However he said they would keep these exchanges voluntary and informal, since any kind of more formal rating or recommending system could leave them open to costly legal challenge, should it lead to lost business. "We are not going down the TripAdvisor route, because there would be legal issues."
In response to another delegate who said some services offered on G-Cloud were not genuine cloud services, and related problems with service contracts offered that are "not fit for purpose" in a cloud environment, he said the problem was being actively tackled, but it was always important to let his team know when any such cases arise.
"I know there have been a lot of issues about suppliers with services on there which are not cloud services, and there is a small team we have now set up which are [looking at] that permanently.
"There are overarching terms in G-cloud which will always win over supplier terms and conditions - but that is not the general idea, so if there are problems you know about, let us know and we will take a look."
Other delegates raised queries about the current maximum two-year length of G-Cloud "infrastructure as a service" contracts, covering services such as web hosting. One said he had come across suppliers arguing they have to charge more for their services because of the short contract period.
Singleton replied that in such cases, it was also important to let him know what suppliers were saying, but overall "we have no plans to extend the review period beyond two years for infrastructure, because the evidence is it drives prices down."
Responding to a further complaint that it would be too expensive to switch suppliers every two years in any case - given the high costs of each migration such as the need for staff training on any new system - Singleton said the point is that no-one ever has to move at any one time - just reassess.
"I would say that when you are coming to the end of a two-year contract, all of those arguments need to go into your decision on whether you are changing that supplier - you don't have to switch, you just have to go through the business case process to see what is most advantageous way of doing things."
Overall Singleton said further improvements were being made to G-Cloud purchasing with the bringing together of all G-Cloud services with the previously separate Digital Services Store, through which public bodies can commission projects through the Digital Services framework, in a new single Digital Marketplace.
The move is part of an ongoing drive to create a more open and competitive marketplace for digital technology in the public sector, he said. "The main priority is about making it easy for buyers to find what they want, which with the cloud store has not been that easy".
As well as new user design and intelligent search and filtering, his team has been working with suppliers to ask them to make simpler, clearer statements about their products and services, as these have often been packed with keywords to rank them higher in searches, with little thought to the poor people reading them - or even to the supplier's own chances of being picked, Singleton said.
"Most buyers, including me, would look at a lot of the service descriptions and think - what is it I am actually being offered?" And the supplier may wonder, why am I not doing any business?"
The transparency of the new service is such that its search results even show up in ordinary Google searches, which surprised some people, he said. "Occasionally we get asked, has there been a security breach? And we say no, that is what you are supposed to be able to do."
Overall G-Cloud sales have now reached £about £25m a month, compared with £7m a month a year ago, Singleton said. The majority of this money is being spent with small and medium-sized businesses, he said, although it remains 80-20 split between central and local government customers.
"There has been some comment about low take-up among local authorities. We are aware we don't have a mandate [for councils], it is about sharing best practice." Case studies showed that councils could benefit greatly from using G-Cloud, he said, not least from its speed: one example was its use by Wiltshire Council to buy and implement a case management system, a process which took just six months from procurement to first use.
Pictured: Cloud man: Tony Singleton addresses Socitm annual conference in Manchester - picture by Dods/Socitm.
Socitm annual conference: http://www.socitmconference.com/
Digital Marketplace: https://www.gov.uk/digital-marketplace