Few subjects have proved more controversial for CRN's audience than public sector IT procurement, but feelings are running particularly high following the latest spate of government frameworks.
Despite the government's SME-friendly agenda, many small and mid-sized resellers we talk to still see the current framework regime as a closed shop.
Some have even suggested the system, which they see as too onerous, could be replaced with an all-encompassing kitemark that certifies resellers across the public sector.
Others, however, regard it as the best means to save the UK taxpayer money on the sums schools, NHS trusts, police forces and local and central government bodies pay for their IT and claim the system does cater to smaller suppliers.
Qualms about public sector procurement are nothing new, but debate on the topic has been reawakened in recent weeks following the conclusion of several big IT frameworks.
This includes a recent Welsh mega-framework worth an expected £800m to the 13 successful bidders. Familiar faces such as Computacenter, Softcat and SCC all made the cut while just one Welsh SME, and two SMEs in total, won a place.
In theory, public sector frameworks provide best value for the taxpayer by driving down prices on commodity hardware, software and services. Suppliers on them have also ticked a series of boxes when it comes to their environmental and CSR credentials.
Proponents say frameworks do this very successfully, so why do so many resellers object to the current set-up?
Calls for a kitemark
Kieran O'Connor, sales director at mid-sized reseller Total Computer Networks, described bidding for public sector business as a "minefield of complication", and suggested the system could be simplified by introducing a pan-public sector kitemark.
"You are better off putting your energy into B2B where you know there is an open and level playing field," he said.
"In public sector you can put a huge amount of effort – I'm talking weeks and weeks – into working on tender documents and all the various things they ask for, and get absolutely nowhere with it. It sometimes feels it's about what are the right buttons to press to get on the contract."
He added: "From what I see in the tender documents, what the government appears to be concerned about is 'are you ethical', 'do you have a policy for the environment and around employment, etc'. You could get the suppliers that tick those boxes that the government cares about, and then let the people on the ground negotiate what's best for them. That would make perfect sense for me."
As it stands, small but innovative suppliers offering a twist on what traditional resellers offer often miss out, O'Connor added.
"I'm not talking about us particularly, but plenty of people out there have done some amazing things they've invested millions into, but can't get a seat at the table because of all the bureaucracy," he said. "So my view would be to get all the resellers that can work to the standards the government insists on and just open it up. Let the buyers – who in the end are ultimately buyers – negotiate. It will probably save them money."
And neither does the current system benefit public sector customers, some critics argue.
In one recent tale of woe we heard, a public sector body needed urgent help with a project but the reseller identified as the best placed to assist it was not on the relevant framework. In the end it was forced to buy from another supplier on the framework, who took a margin cut before sub-contracting the work to the reseller. The practice of customers swerving around frameworks via sub-contracting or 'primers', which some say is on the rise, was covered in a recent CRN feature, with Daisy saying last week that it has given rise to the emergence of a framework "community".
Others would argue the current framework system can also deny public sector bodies the option of working with a supplier that can offer a local service.
When his firm, Computerworld Wales, lost out on the recent Welsh hardware framework, Shaune Parsons said his company's absence from the line-up made his Welsh customers "feel they've had their arms ripped off".
"The customer is used to that level of service and now they're thinking 'I can't get that company in Leeds to drop a cable in the office on their way past this morning'," he said.
Parsons suggested that smaller, local firms could be given extra weighting when bidding for business.
Two sides to the story
Is that a view recognised by the larger resellers who have been most successful on government frameworks?
Jon Lang, UK head of public sector at global IT reseller Insight Enterprises, which is currently on 26 government frameworks, said he "understood the debate" around the introduction of a kitemark but added that he wasn't sure he agreed with it.
He also rejected the suggestion the current system is a closed shop.
"There are 40-plus public sector buying organisations out there and they're all trying to deliver value by getting the right resellers on them," he said.
"From our perspective, the reason we get on them is because we offer value to public sector organisations. But that doesn't mean it's a closed shop; it just means if you're a smaller reseller just selling product you're going to struggle to get on the frameworks because you don't have the economies of scale or buying power to give the best price."
Lang said the lack of frameworks tailored to smaller resellers with niche skills, such as analytics, is regrettable, but that addressing this would cost the government more to organise than it would save.
But he argued that the current framework system is by no means a no-go zone for small resellers with a unique proposition.
"You can access the frameworks by partnering with resellers that are on them," he said. "We have a network of over 400 partners offering those niche solutions, including in bedside e-observation. We work with lots of smaller resellers who are plying expertise we don't have ourselves and work really well with that partner community."
Lang said the concept of introducing a kitemark was "great" in theory, but doubted such a system would comply with the EU legislative environment.
"I am not sure it would be executable," he said.
The government and procurement bodies themselves would argue that their efforts to become more SME-friendly are seeing results.
The Welsh Government told us its spending with Wales-based businesses has risen by 20 percentage points, from 35 per cent to 55 per cent, since it introduced an SME-friendly procurement policy in 2004.
"The tender process for the IT Products and Services Framework was streamlined to minimise barriers to SME supplier participation through the setting up of appropriate insurance levels and financial checks via the use of the Welsh Government's supplier qualification information database," it said.
Last February, central government claimed it spent an unprecedented £11.4bn with SMEs in 2013 and 2014, representing 26.1 per cent of total spend. Some 10.3 per cent of that was directly with SMEs and 15.8 per cent indirectly.
The government claims this means it met its aspiration, set out in 2010, that 25 per cent of government procurement spend would be with SMEs by the end of the last parliament.
However, the outcome of some recent frameworks shows the SME-friendly rhetoric at the top of government isn't always matched by the actions of the procurement bodies, argued Reuben Leach, commercial manager at Kettering-based managed service provider PCS Business Systems.
"I would be inclined to speculate that the people putting out these frameworks are happier for the larger organisations to be on there as it's easier for them to manage those relationships and they have built them up over a long period of time," he said.
"I can talk from personal experience having been a salesperson with large accounts such as councils, where they've said 'we can't use you any more because you are not on this framework'. And they are as frustrated as I am as a salesperson."
Leach said introducing a kitemark that would serve to represent quality and reliability, or even a more open system where public sector bodies can within reason choose whichever supplier they desire, would be a fairer system for suppliers and buyers.
The current system means public sector customers often cannot buy from their supplier of choice, Leach said.
A kitemark would have the advantage of driving up the professionalism of resellers and MSPs, for instance if they were required to obtain standards such as ISO 9001 and 270001, Leach said, but questioned whether such a system would be viable.
"The idea of a kitemark is a good one, but I'm not sure how they would manage it if you ended up with 1,000 suppliers. Someone would have to manage that and at the moment [the procurement bodies] are in many cases partly funded by a rebate from suppliers on every order."
He added: "It would be easier to let people buy from whoever they want to buy from. If there were some rules and regulations where people had to register with a particular council or school and upload details on industry accreditations, quality standards, health and safety – or whatever it is they are looking for – that would be a lot easier. But unfortunately it would take a lot of people to sit down in a room and change this."
Don't forget G-Cloud
For others, there is already an answer to many of these qualms in the form of G-Cloud, the public sector cloud services framework whose latest iteration offers services from more than 1,400 suppliers, 77 per cent of which are SMEs.
Scott Haddow, chief executive of VAR and services firm Trustmarque, said: "G-Cloud is the answer, and we are very focused on it right now, especially with the messaging coming out of HMRC that any public sector organisation buying through G-Cloud can save on VAT.
"We are not really in hardware, but certainly for software and services, G-Cloud is the preferred route for a lot of our customers. The cost of entry is much less than many other frameworks, and the frequency with which you can get on it is much more often."
But despite the fact G-Cloud sales are surging towards the £1bn mark, it can't be used to purchase hardware, while some suppliers and commentators say the framework remains too rigid.
What about public sector buyers themselves? The recent CRN Education Report uncovered an ambivalent attitude towards government frameworks, at least among ICT decision makers at schools, colleges and universities.
Just 23.9 per cent of respondents said they purchase all or most of their ICT products through frameworks given the choice. Lack of flexibility/choice and poor value for money were two common gripes when respondents were pressed to give a more detailed account of their stance.
This chimes with comments made by public sector supplier Prolinx, which recently exited the National Server and Storage Agreement framework, saying it was too inflexible for the current needs of its universities and college customers.
Wherever you stand on the debate, please leave a comment or get in touch via [email protected] to make your views heard.
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