Within living memory, the UK’s Crown Commercial Service (CCS) had planned to reshape a large swathe of public procurement in the image of the Digital Marketplace, the website that effectively ran the G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes frameworks. The future, we were assured, was a dynamic marketplace where purchasing was easy and competition was high. Recently, CCS announced that Digital Marketplace was to close and procurement of digital services was to revert to the Jaegger procurement platform. The dream of an online marketplace service appears to be dead and in its place Government has decided to rely on a platform that is viewed with a mixture of suspicion and derision by many businesses that bid for government work.
It is a decision that appears to be the final rites for the revolution in digital contracting that was supposed to occur under the coalition government. Smaller, multi-disciplinary teams would buy skills and services from hungry small businesses instead of the consulting behemoths and they’d do it using an open and accessible framework. That’s not all, open data, open source software and intense competition would prevent vendor lock-in and bad deals whilst controlling budgets. For a while, it worked. Changes were wrought and the viability of contracts questioned, small businesses won exciting contracts and digital contracts were much more competitive.
However, despite some noted successes there were also some significant failures and as the difficulty of building digital services for really thorny policy problems meant the number of failures racked up, the dream had started to fade. The owner of the Digital Marketplace, the Government Digital Service, was shunted between Ministerial Departments and then pushed out of Whitehall to an office in Whitechapel, the surest indication that the other Departments weren’t enjoying any intervention in their digital affairs.
And now the adventure is over, Government is back to using proprietary software, transparency will no longer be the default setting for technology contracts and Departments will be able to go back to the old ways of buying digital services. It will be interesting to see if the scrutiny and competitiveness that Digital Marketplace created can be maintained once the service has closed, but if PPE procurement is anything to go by, it seems unlikely. For those of us who drank the GDS koolaid and who fought for greater transparency it is a disappointing end to a project that seemed to promise so much.
We shall simply have to hope that our time will come again.
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