The government's Service Design Manual and exemplar projects are driving a spike through out-dated, silo approaches to public service design and operations - cutting across both arbitrary organisational hierarchies and traditional procurement practice. So too the success of G-Cloud and the CloudStore are helping bring government services into the 21st century.
And yet elsewhere the dead hand of monolithic procurement persists, with lengthy OJEU processes rooted in waterfall requirements running to hundreds of pages. In the same way that every problem looks like a nail if the only tool you have is a hammer, in the wrong hands every traditional IT-related service looks like a procurement. There remains a doggedly persistent obsession with rushing to buy something - anything - merely because a contract is coming to an end, rather than working out how best to acquire the capability to meet user need.
This high risk procurement model perpetuates high cost, low quality outcomes, with an inherent bias towards single large suppliers and ‘War and Peace’ length contracts. Its legacy approach blocks out the skills of SMEs with the vital experience of massively scalable, agile, real-time, high-volume mission critical systems - further embedding the dead hand of an outdated, over-priced supply chain.
Yet better procurement models are hardly anything new. Around a decade ago, United Nations’ research showed that most public sector organisations were still implementing approaches that private companies had evolved away from in the late 1990s. Successful procurement was aligned with a strategic information architecture based on a service-oriented model. Its successful implementation involved the use of smaller, local and specialised suppliers rather than the "soup to nuts" monoliths of the past.
Improving our public services requires governance, architecture and procurement to all pull together. Government’s approach to service design is already improving under the mentoring of the Government Digital Service, driven by a re-orientation around user need and end-to-end services rather than perpetuating the arbitrary hierarchical and organisational structures of analogue government administration. Governance too is in midst of a process of professionalisation, terminating the traditional “facilities manager” CIO function and implementing instead digital leaders supported by chief technology officers with depth and breadth of experience in the current state of IT.
Procurement now needs to support agile programme methods, the abstraction of complexity, the use of open standards and interoperable components, vendor neutrality, speed of delivery, cost effectiveness, flexibility and extensibility. The time is ripe to retire a procurement model that bundles an arbitrary laundry list of random requirements into a series of monolithic towers that hands contracts (and wads of taxpayers’ cash) to the usual suspects - and to bring it up to the same design standard as the reform of governance and architecture.
The pioneering mindset that brought us G-Cloud now needs to become the new normal across all areas of procurement, to expedite the delivery of truly effective digital public management. It’s time to make procurement truly digital by default: time for procurement to meet user need for once instead of getting in the way.