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Save the G-Cloud

Is the government’s G-Cloud project in trouble? We report

 

Rumours are rife that the government’s promising G-Cloud programme is falling victim to internal politics within the Civil Service, just at the time when it needs to be speaking with a strong, clear voice. Stuart Lauchlan and Chris Middleton investigate.

ORGANISATIONS SHORTSince its launch two years ago, the UK government’s G-Cloud framework has been one of the most successful public sector programmes in reforming IT procurement and service delivery – one that has helped to lower costs and open up the government IT market to innovative SMEs.

Together, commodity purchasing, shorter-term contracts and a public-cloud-first policy have helped to create a fairer procurement system that reduces the influence of, and reliance on, what the Cabinet Office calls the ‘oligopoly’ of large enterprise IT suppliers.

Tony Singleton

GDS COO Tony Singleton, now in charge of the G-Cloud.

But there is mounting evidence that, since being moved into the Government Digital Service (GDS), the G-Cloud may have been set adrift, leaving buyers without guidance and the programme’s achievements at risk of being lost as departments go back to old ways of purchasing.

One of the companies that has benefitted most from the G-Cloud has been cloud collaboration provider Huddle, whose CEO Alastair Mitchell told the Strategist in an exclusive interview that he was troubled by the apparent loss of leadership within the project.

Lost leadership

“I have two concerns on the G-Cloud,” he said. “They had a leader for it when it was a distinct group, and definitely you notice that doesn’t exist anyone. I am concerned about that. It still exists as a framework, but it’s not being pushed anymore or led from the top. And this is down to [Cabinet Office Minister Francis] Maude [to fix], and I told him this when I met him recently, to push it back onto the radar, because it had such promising beginnings.

“The other thing that I’m concerned about now, from the UK plc point of view, is that the other thing the British government did [until recently] – and this stems back to the days of Labour before the Coalition – was they very heavily promoted SMEs. They said ‘If you’re an SME and you work for government, we will pay you faster, which is transformational for a small business. And they set up frameworks, such as the G-Cloud, to make it easier to transact with government.

Alistair Mitchell, Huddle

Alastair Mitchell, Huddle co-founder and CEO.

“But since it’s lost its leadership, the G-Cloud has opened up to everyone, and that means that suddenly you’ve got Oracle and IBM and Salesforce.com and all the big guys invading the space, which was originally designed for the purchaser but is now being taken over [by large corporate interests].

“It’s just become an amorphous cloud tool, which means that the original benefits are being lost. You’re buying from the same big companies that previously you were trying to get away from. And from an SME perspective, you’re losing the benefit of the government buying from that sector.”

Old attitudes resurfacing

Evidence that this may be the case can be found in a recent deal: in April 2014, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office awarded a £6.3 million, two-year contract to Capgemini to support the upgrade of its Oracle ERP system. The deal was pitched as a G-Cloud success story, with the two-year contract that entails, yet in reality it seems to be an extension of an existing deal, within which there is – apparently – no cloud element at all.

Mitchell is not alone in voicing his concerns. EuroCloud is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the interests of a number of suppliers. Board director Rhys Sharp told Strategist partner Diginomica: “The frustration we feel is that buyers struggle to use the framework and CloudStore. They often don’t understand cloud computing and the key principles of cloud, they are sceptical about how the framework operates, and they find it hard to understand what each service delivers.

“The challenge we have from an education perspective is reach, scale and trust. Educating a customer is great for our community, as direct customer access is what we want. However, [our members] are typically SME organisations that don’t have the reach across government. We don’t have the scale to be able to address a wide audience and there is still mistrust of the supply community by government.”

Francis Maude MP

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has reformed IT procurement.

If the G-Cloud has been left rudderless the consequences could be devastating – not least for the procurement reform programme of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

No less a commentator than Tony Singleton, G-Cloud and digital commercial programme director at the Cabinet Office, notes on the official government blog that purchasing via the framework has delivered half-price IT: “On average, we saw savings of around 50 per cent, and there are examples of savings of more than this. Other benefits that buyers have spoken about include: greater transparency; flexibility; a simpler, clearer, faster way to buy; and, ultimately, better value for the taxpayer – once the requirement has been defined, we have put a contract in place in three minutes.”

Trouble instore

Over the next 18 months or so, the UK public sector will start to wind down a number of multiyear, multibillion pound lock-in deals with large IT and services companies. As these come to an end, the argument has long been that they can be replaced by commodity digital and public-cloud-first alternatives via the G-Cloud and the CloudStore.

But if the G-Cloud has been left adrift within the Civil Service, then the necessary leadership and assistance for both buy- and sell-side participants will be absent at the most critical time, and without them buyers will simply default to old behaviours. In short, the impetus to reform government procurement will be lost just as buyers reach for their cheque books.

The G-Cloud certainly has a much lower profile than it did a year ago. For example, at the Think Cloud for Government conference in March 2014, no one from the G-Cloud team turned up to address a captive audience of government buyers and sellers – unlike in previous years when they engaged directly with their audience at the event and evangelised for the programme.

One buy-side delegate said that the reason for attending was to understand more about the arguments for using the framework and how to go about buying from it. Another, from a prospective sell-side participant in the G-Cloud, wanted guidance on accreditation. They and other delegates took the no-show as a bad sign about the ongoing viability of the programme.

The G-Cloud team no longer seem to be running their own events either. In the pre-GDS days, regular outreach workshops and webinars would take place, such as BuyCamp or AccreditCamp. The last one of those was held in July last year, shortly before the programme was moved into the GDS. Since then: nothing.

It’s a sad development, especially in light of a new study by cloud services firm Eduserv, which reports that 88 per cent of civil servants across central government believe that they need training to properly understand the benefits of the cloud.

So what has been happening within the programme itself? A senior source in government has told Strategist partner Diginomica of rumoured tensions within the GDS, which are related to a strategy to create an all-encompassing Digital Marketplace. The implication, according to the source, is that the G-Cloud brand is being ‘de-emphasised’ so that the Digital Marketplace can be promoted in its place.

If true, then the timing of this internal marketing strategy could not be worse, as it risks losing the transformative potential of the G-Cloud programme at a crucial time, along with the opportunities that it offers a range of innovative smaller suppliers. If the Digital Marketplace is now the government’s priority, then much stronger messaging is needed to position the G-Cloud within it. TS

OUR INTERVIEW WITH HUDDLE’S ALASTAIR MITCHELL >
MORE ON THE G-CLOUD’S PROGRESS >
DIGINOMICA ON THE CHALLENGE TO THE G-CLOUD >

The Strategist says

The G-Cloud has been one of the most promising and successful government attempts to rein in IT procurement and policy – an area where the public sector has performed badly in the past. It is clear that since moving under the umbrella of the Government Digital Service it has fallen victim to internal organisational politics, and its message is being lost as a direct result of arguments about marketing. Whitehall needs to reinstate much stronger leadership into the programme if it is to succeed in its aim. Failure to do so means losing a massive opportunity for reform, as major IT contracts come to an end. Buyers needs strategic education and operational advice, not blogs and marketing spiels.
Stuart Lauchlan is co-founding editor of Diginomica.com, a Strategist media partner. Chris Middleton is founder and editor in chief of Strategist magazine.

 

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