Over the past month, several reports have suggested that the G-Cloud framework is slowly being abandoned, that the vision behind it has been brushed aside, and that all that remains is a marketing gimmick for the government to point to when SMEs ask what Whitehall is doing to open up opportunities for them.
The G-Cloud, which is now in its sixth iteration, was set up as a framework listing approved service providers. Public-sector organisations could procure cloud-based services from suppliers listed in the framework's CloudStore, cutting short the typically lengthy government tender process.
The framework seemed to be having some success, with Whitehall departments adopting a "cloud-first" policy and SME suppliers getting a share of government business. But then, just when it was gaining momentum, Whitehall seemed to put the brakes on it when it subsumed the scheme into the Government Digital Service (GDS) in autumn 2013.
In a move that suggested the coalition was aware of fears that G-Cloud was being sidelined, Whitehall digital supremo Tony Singleton had his job title changed to include the term, becoming director G-Cloud and Digital Commercial Programme at the GDS in June 2014. But the fears have not abated.
John Glover, sales director at INOVEM, the firm behind the cloud-based Kahootz collaboration service, says that apart from Singleton, he would find it hard to name anyone else involved with G-Cloud at GDS.
"Since the move to GDS, the opportunities for involvement and collaborative stakeholder engagement have been few and far between," he says.
Meanwhile, an anonymous blog post written by someone who may have been part of the initial G-Cloud programme suggested that the switch from the G-Cloud Twitter handle to the government's Digital Marketplace handle is a cause for concern.
"GDS just don't get it and there is no G-Cloud team any more," the unnamed blogger said.
This, coupled with former G-Cloud lead Mark Craddock's comment that the framework relies on a "poorly designed, implemented and over complex digital services store consuming too much effort", was enough to cause uproar around the industry.
Nothing to worry about?
In an interview with Computing, G-Cloud founder Chris Chant says that, despite the fact that the original team are no longer involved, he was delighted that it moved to GDS.
"There is always staff turnover at every organisation [so that isn't a surprise], but I was delighted because GDS knows the way government needs to do business in the world today. I don't think there is anywhere better for G-Cloud than GDS, it completely understands the importance of G-Cloud," he says.
Kate Craig-Wood, managing director at hosting provider Memset, believes that the G-Cloud had to be put under one roof with other frameworks, and that the transition to GDS was the right call.
But INOVEM's Glover says the move has delivered few benefits for suppliers.
"It seems as if the G-Cloud has been relegated to the status of a project rather than an initiative. We are concerned that the new Digital Marketplace provides no functional search filters. In addition, during the G-Cloud 6 submission, all the vendor questions with regard to functional capability were removed, making it impossible for buyers to long- and short-list services based on ability to meet a list of requirements, such as compliance with web accessibility standards," he says.
Chant concedes that one problematic issue with G-Cloud being owned by GDS is the involvement of the Crown Commercial Service (CCS).
"I believe CCS is not fully engaged with the boosting of SMEs agenda, not really engaged with the user-centric way of designing their services - they are a bit old school. The result of that is, unless GDS is overseeing every single step, you will get CCS's own ways creeping in and that's where you get complaints," he says.
Either way, there has been an enormous amount of confusion for suppliers and customers alike about G-Cloud as a result of its transition to GDS.
INOVEM's Glover says that GDS's approach is rightly driven by user need, but that this raises several unanswered questions.
"Does this mean that a bespoke development effort will always be preferred over selecting a "near enough" off-the-shelf solution? Where will compromises be made in user requirements, if at all? Does GDS have a conflict of interest when it comes to ‘buy' versus ‘build'?" he asks.
"Before the G-Cloud was moved into GDS, there was a clear and obvious separation between the ‘buy' versus ‘build' champions, which made it easier for cloud vendors like us to develop relationships and ideas with the G-Cloud team members."
Total sales through G-Cloud have now exceeded £430m, with nearly half (48.3 per cent) of those deals going to SMEs. However, smaller vendors are worried that this progress is in danger of being squandered. Peter Groucutt, managing director of G-cloud supplier Databarracks, believes that the CCS needs to do more to level the playing field for SMEs.
"System integrators have always had a stranglehold on government IT, and despite G-Cloud's best efforts, that hasn't changed. In reality, it's not actually any easier for us to win a government contract through G-Cloud than it is the traditional way - we're still coming up against the same giants," he says.
About £344m of the overall £431m that has been spent through G-Cloud was in Lot 4, which is reserved for "specialist cloud services", which include some from SMEs. Despite this, some in the vendor community feel government IT leaders are still too wary of cloud.
"Only 15 per cent has been recently going into IaaS, PaaS and SaaS and that's really frustrating - we should be moving away from [consultancy] and towards the cloud, and that's been a frustration [considering it is] a few years in," says Craig-Wood, who feels not enough of the services being sold through G-Cloud are truly cloud services. This may be partly down to inexperience within government.
"Perhaps some of the bigger departments are ready, but years of outsourcing has impacted G-Cloud," she explains. "A lot of government is not ready to buy cloud in the true sense, they don't have the in-house expertise to understand the software and they need consultancy help in order to do so."
Chant agrees that many public-sector bodies do not have the right calibre of people to tackle something major like a cloud migration.
"There's a huge number of people who work in public sector IT, but are they the right people for transformation?" he asks.
Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom believes many government IT leaders are still wary of G-Cloud and feel that a £1m purchase isn't as "impressive" as a £10m one.
It's a two-way street
Charlie Clark, CEO of Rosslyn Analytics, says he has received no leads or business from the G-Cloud in all his time listed on the framework. He suggests that G-Cloud is just marketing collateral that the government can showcase to demonstrate to taxpayers that it is creating opportunities for SMEs.
"If the government had a clear vision, it wouldn't need to re-brand or reposition G-Cloud several times over the past few years," he says.
But Chant emphasises that businesses aren't guaranteed work just by getting onto the G-Cloud framework, saying SMEs need to put in more effort selling their services.
"You still have to have a service the government wants and you have to be visible," he says.
However, some SMEs have already given up on G-Cloud. John Paterson, chief executive of Really Simple Systems, says his firm opted out of the framework because buyers were not using G-Cloud as they were happy with existing suppliers. It is not worth selling to government unless the contract value is at least £50,000, he believes.
"This ironically means that government cannot buy cheap cloud solutions, as they are too cheap," he claims.
But Harry Metcalfe, managing director of dxw, a company that has made nearly £1m in sales through the G-Cloud, believes that many firms were always unrealistic about their prospects.
"It is necessary to market to the public sector. Some businesses might spend a lot on marketing, but the point is that the reason for not getting business is not down to the structure of G-Cloud," he says.
Taking agile out of the equation
Earlier this week, some 25 SME G-Cloud providers united to condemn the government's latest agile procurement initiative Digital Services 2 (DS2), claiming that it is "unfit for purpose".
CCS, which owns both G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework, removed agile development from G-Cloud 6 and briefly threatened to remove it from G-Cloud 5, making DS2 the only procurement route for agile digital delivery.
Given that many sales through Lot 4 of the G-Cloud have been for agile consulting and development, this seemed a bizarre move by CCS, once again putting question marks over the validity of G-Cloud. In addition, the 25 SMEs, which include dxw, believe that DS2 is a flawed framework.
"DS2 ignores the fact that good companies are more than the sum of their parts: a good digital agency isn't just about headcount, it's about culture and process and shared experience. The framework makes naïve assumptions about what individuals can achieve at a remove from their normal team and process, and ignores the commercial realities facing SMEs," says dxw's Metcalfe.
Last week, Singleton said that the government is to set up a multi-disciplinary team made up of people from GDS and CCS together with Treasury solicitors to build a DS3 that works for all parties. The new framework will replace DS2 as soon as it is ready, meanwhile G-Cloud will continue to support agile procurement.
Once again this makes apparent the petty infighting between the government bodies involved. CCS, which controls all matters relating to procurement for both G-Cloud and the DS framework, is clearly at odds with GDS. This doesn't bode well for the future of the G-Cloud. Longbottom says that the arguing has "muddied the waters" for suppliers and buyers.
Building on success
With the general election looming, it is inevitable that people are asking whether the G-Cloud has been a success or not. The vast majority of sources that Computing has spoken to for this article have lauded the programme and its efforts to ensure that SMEs get business from government.
But £431m is still a fraction of the government's overall ICT spend, and more than £5bn is still tied up in legacy IT contracts, according to Jacqui Taylor, Cabinet Office adviser and CEO at G-Cloud supplier FlyingBinary. The government recently bragged that it had spent more than a quarter of its procurement budget (£11.4bn) on SMEs in 2013-2014, and in IT much of that could be to do with the launch of G-Cloud. But the real measure of G-Cloud's success will be whether government can convert its legacy deals into contracts with SMEs, as many will be up for grabs again shortly - and surely G-Cloud can help to facilitate that.
First, however, there are several things that the GDS needs to do. One is to raise awareness of the initiative itself. According to research from Sage, 90 per cent of the UK's small business owners are entirely unaware of the G-Cloud, meaning that there is still huge room for improvement in terms of choice. Second is to ensure that GDS and CCS sort out their working relationship to avoid the sort of confusion that occurred with DS2. Chant has even called for CCS to be dropped from involvement in the technical aspects of G-Cloud, but this is not thought likely. The third is to ensure those working in government have the right technical skills to transition to the cloud; and the fourth is to ensure suppliers know the best way to market themselves to give them a better chance of success.
Most importantly, GDS needs to clarify where it intends to go with G-Cloud - perhaps producing a roadmap to show how G-Cloud will work in two years' time. This would be beneficial to buyers and suppliers alike. As part of that roadmap, GDS would need to explain whether it prefers to build all the components of Government-as-a-Platform or look to work closely to integrate commercial off-the-shelf solutions by clarifying interface standards. GDS needs to communicate with the industry what its focus for G-Cloud will be - something that has been lacking so far.
Unlike many public-sector IT initiatives, G-Cloud has broadly been seen as a success, and many would be angered if it were to be allowed to fail at this stage.
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