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UK.gov tempts SMEs with tasty framework, then slaps them in face

Will GDS work with small biz or just build itself an empire?

Central government is breaking its own commitment to increase procurement from SMEs by squeezing small businesses out of its existing frameworks for "digital services."

A number of small businesses have complained that the set-up of the latest version of the Digital Services framework amounts to a recruitment "body-shopping" exercise, allowing the Government Digital Service (GDS) to siphon off contractors to work on-site.

Andy Budd, chief executive of digital design company Clearleft, said GDS should now concentrate on working with external suppliers.

"Essentially it seems like GDS are weeding out the most experienced staff in favour of low-cost resources they can use to pad out their teams - reducing the [country's] amazing design and dev agencies to little more than recruitment firms," he wrote in a blog.

He told El Reg: "Look at the BBC, for example. Part of its remit is to 'stimulate the creative sector'. So shouldn't the government also be applying that to its own services?"

The GDS has previously come under fire for its insistence on building everything in-house, rather than engaging with small businesses and using more “off the shelf” services.

Yet the government has committed to increase its spend with SMEs to 25 per cent before the next election.

Harry Metcalfe, managing director of public sector web project company DXW, said: "Too much needs fixing for it to be possible for government to do everything in-house - it's vital that government can get the right companies delivering in the right way. We need a framework approach that achieves that."

The situation has also be exacerbated by the next iteration of the G-Cloud framework no longer allowing small businesses to provide "agile services" - a route which had been used to get round the government's notoriously bureaucratic procurement processes.

Metcalfe hopes to see an extension of agile services under the G-Cloud while the government "re-thinks" its digital services framework.

Dominic Campbell, head of digital design company FutureGov, agreed the rigid structure of the framework, combined with mandatory on-site working "make it commercially challenging for SMEs to deliver work through it."

Steph Gray, managing director of web design company Helpful Technologies, wrote in a blog that the framework contained "slim prospect" of "suitable, enjoyable, commercially-viable work arising from it".

He said: "So much about the government digital landscape has been positively transformed in the last few years, it’s a shame SME procurement still hasn’t been fixed."

The Cabinet Office said 84 per cent of SMEs are currently on the Digital Services framework.

It said: "We know more needs to be done to ensure that the needs of those who are building digital public services are met. We will further reduce the barriers for suppliers to provide highly capable individuals and teams to work with them." ®

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