Procurement 2.0: making the most of tech buying frameworks

By on 11/01/2022 | Updated on 04/02/2022

The steep rise in demand for online public services triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on just how useful tech buying frameworks can be. At a GGF webinar, Jack Aldane heard experts discuss the benefits of these digital marketplaces and why procurement officials should always keep the end-user front of mind

When director of platform at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) Elodie Bouneau was growing up in France, she would hear about the endless difficulties of building software to facilitate RFP (request for proposal) and procurements from her entrepreneur father. Twenty years on, as a federal employee in Canada, Bouneau has found that many of the same difficulties remain to this day.

To help overcome the challenges of buying technologies, some governments have introduced curated lists of pre-approved suppliers, products and services, known as tech buying frameworks. These digital marketplaces were the subject of discussion for four guest speakers, including Bouneau, at a Global Government Forum webinar held in December.  

Over the last decade, tech buying frameworks have been proven to slash administration costs, bolster compliance, and help smaller civil service bodies to procure technologies. And in countries where they have been introduced, they are well used. To give a sense of the scale of the market, spending through the UK’s digital frameworks, for example, rose by a record £800m (US$1.1bn) to £3.2bn (US$4.4bn) in 2020-21.

Cristina Caballé

According to Cristina Caballé, executive director of IBM Global Public Sector – IBM was the webinar’s knowledge partner – one of the biggest benefits procurement officers and suppliers stand to gain from using tech buying frameworks is the ability to reduce the procurement timeline.

She said what used to take procurement officers six to nine months now takes as little as a few weeks. Once an agency knows what it wants to procure, tech buying frameworks provide standardised components that are ready to buy as though off the shelf, and the agreements the frameworks offer are highly flexible, making it easier to change course where needed.

“Pre-agreed terms and conditions [mean that] the providers can simply call off the framework to meet requirements. This injects agility [and] innovation,” Caballé said.

Suppliers big and small

Another benefit of tech buying frameworks is enabling government departments to more easily access, and procure from, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Together with the Government Procurement Administration, Rotem Einav of the Digital Israel National Bureau and her team designed the Digital Services Tender, a platform that allows the government to purchase services from freelancers and boutique companies as well as large suppliers. The central digital purchase system lowers bureaucratic requirements around insurance and guarantees, thus smoothing the way for SMEs.

Rotem Einav

Once a need is identified, a project brief is submitted and processed, producing a shortlist of suppliers to choose from. Of 360 suppliers that applied to appear on the framework, around 160 were chosen. Among these, 90% were new to working with government.

According to Einav, the project has been a big success. “In terms of what we wanted to achieve, we really got it done,” she said.

However, while tech buying frameworks can be more inclusive, some of the panellists explained that, if too complex, they can actually crowd out smaller suppliers.

Sal Uddin, commercial director of technology solutions and outcomes for the UK’s Crown Commercial Service – an executive agency through which around 72% of government procurements are made – said that while chasing an “Amazon-esque” vision of optimal performance is tempting, this does not necessarily benefit the end user, let alone smaller players in the market.

Caballé agrees.“If the frameworks are too complex, or have high barriers to entry, it’s difficult to be inclusive, and governments might lose the opportunity to work in this wider ecosystem of partners that can enrich and can also give this agility to projects into the future,” she said.

To buy or to build?

However, there are times when tech buying frameworks are not the right choice. According to Bouneau, building a system in-house is sometimes wiser than procuring from the private sector. As she explains, procurement officers should first think carefully about the problem they are trying to solve, rather than jumping to blindly buy a solution that they imagine will fix it.

“Don’t say ‘I’m going to buy a DSL [digital signal processor], or ‘I’m going to buy an SSL [secure sockets layer]. Look at what you’re trying to solve for the public servants and your end users,” Bouneau said.

Elodie Bouneau

Building systems in-house often empowers civil servants to deliver better and faster, she said, because it eliminates a lengthy procurement process. Though she concedes this requires capability and resource, which are not always available.

When it comes to procurement from the private sector, Bouneau advised civil servants to focus on what she calls the ‘B-2-B-2-C [business-to-business-to-consumer] experience’, thoroughly testing any solution and making sure it is both “fit for purpose and fit for context” to ensure end-users will have a positive experience.

“In Canada, we absolutely have to be bilingual and so we have to bake that into anything we use. Security is [also] really important, [as is] data privacy and how it gets applied, as well as accessibility, and inclusivity,” Bouneau explained.

Asked whether he believed buying from a framework is always an organisation’s best choice, Uddin said ”no”. “I do think there’s something to a ‘make’ versus a ‘buy’ approach,” he said. “But that comes with its own risks and return-on-investment timescale, which there’s often not enough patience for in the cycle of government changes.”  

Any decision about whether to buy to or build depends largely on what is being bought in the first place, he added. “The more commodity-based a purchase, the more it lends itself to being bought from a framework.”   

In Caballé’s opinion, the potential for co-creation, innovation and creativity within procurement processes can be hampered if a buying framework is relied upon too heavily. “If the process becomes too boxed in a tech buying framework, it could [risk] not fulfilling [your] objectives,” she said.

A view to the future

Panellists agreed that there were lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, not least that government entities must remain open to partnerships with the private sector to meet challenges such as skyrocketing service demand, skills gaps, and infrastructural weaknesses.

Sal Uddin

Uddin said the Crown Commercial Service is not afraid to bring in experts from partner organisations and the private sector in cases when internal capability does not suffice. “Let’s not kid ourselves… we’ve hollowed out our capability in government to deliver services in-house,” he said. “I fear that ‘value now’ trumps whole-life ‘value later’, but the ‘investment now’ is not a vote-seller.”

So, what does the future hold for tech buying frameworks in government? Caballé sees one based on collaboration between governments, as well as openness to new ecosystems of procurement practice. Such ecosystems are likely to be based on blockchain and digital currency technologies, some of which are already being used to verify suppliers big and small in the onboarding process of growing networks.

“The next big step is trying to streamline and simplify supplier qualification, onboarding, and lifecycle management with these kinds of technologies,” she said.

Echoing Uddin’s earlier warning about the dangers of Amazon-style aspiration, Einav said her key advice to governments would simply be: “Plan big, act small.”

“There is always something small you can buy that will take you to the next level in the project,” she said. “Do it the agile way.”

Speaking as someone who has seen first-hand that the challenges of procurement span generations, Bouneau urged civil servants to keep in mind their successors when adopting new technologies. “For the next wave of civil servants, when they look back at what you’ve adopted, technologically speaking, ask how they will feel about it, so that you build the best foundations for them in the future.”

Tech buying frameworks have no doubt smoothed what had traditionally been a long, drawn-out process. They may not be the be-all and end-all but there are myriad benefits, and by all accounts digital marketplaces are here to stay and set to grow.

The Global Government Forum webinar Off the shelf and on the money: tech buying frameworks was held on 7 December 2021, with the support of knowledge partner IBM. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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