The Crown Marketplace – Vision, a Successful Pilot and Broad Functionality (Part 2)

In part 1, we looked at the Crown Commercial Service plans for the Crown Marketplace. The vision is for a platform that allows any public sector buyer to access all the CCS contracts and frameworks, as well as potentially agreements put in place by other collaborative buying organisations or indeed the users themselves. We can absolutely see what CCS is trying to do here, and if we jump into the future – maybe 20 years hence – it seems almost certain that this sort of platform (or platforms)  will be used generally in the public sector.

However, we are talking about an initiative that is running now. So while the benefits if it works are pretty clear, there are some barriers and critical success factors that must be addressed.

At a strategic level, there are still unanswered questions about the optimum level of aggregation for public sector spend categories. Category by category, should it be local, regional, national? Ten years and more on from the first work done on this under Peter Gershon, there still seems little clarity.  And linked to this, the issue of the wider public sector using CCS agreements is also key, although if we look on the Marketplace as potentially a virtual home for all public sector collaborative procurement organisations, this may be less of an issue.

And ironically, another barrier is that the more potential buyers there are using the same deals, the more important it is for suppliers who are not chosen by CCS to subvert the process. If I’m a specialist public sector management consulting firm, and the CCS consulting framework now has 90% uptake, and I’m not on it, I have to do something to preserve my livelihood. So I’m going to offer very attractive prices – better than those offered by the CCS deals – to save my skin.

CCS also has to make one key decision. The supplier briefing document talks about the possibility of running this tender under a “concession” basis rather than as a traditional procurement. That would mean the chosen supplier taking considerable risk, building the platform at their own expense, and relying on income from users once the platform is up and running  - rather than being funded for development as in a more usual bespoke software procurement agreement.

We can see the attraction of the concession route but for potential bidders to carry out a lot of development work with the hope of future income rather than definite funding is high risk.  And it brings into focus the whole question of whether local government, health, schools and others will use the platform. As an example of the possible barriers; will a rabid left-wing council want to put business the way of Cabinet Office and what might even be perceived as a “PFI-type” deal with a big consulting or tech firm?

Then we have the operational issues and barriers. CCS feels that a consortium will be needed to combine the technology competence plus the change and programme management skills needed, plus perhaps specialist payments and finance input. But the track record of consortia succeeding in large public sector programmes is very mixed. They aren’t easy to make work for the various participants and they aren’t easy to manage for the buyer.

And while each element of the desired technology is not in itself scarily novel, sticking it all together in a single platform is new.  This is very much shaping up to be a bespoke software (and change) programme. But the leaders in the procurement software field tend to talk about “adopting not adapting” – in other words, choose a great platform and mould your own processes to fit what the software is designed to do. I’ve heard organisations who have successfully implemented market leading products like Coupa, Ariba, or BravoSolution all talking about this as a critical success factor.

Now other software firms are very happy to do more tailoring of their products – but this will take time, and increases total cost of ownership because you are into a continuous cycle of upgrades and improvements, all specially done for you. And let’s face it, government does not move fast at the best of times – we wait to see if even the initial timescales here (an OJEU advert “in the Autumn” we were told) are achieved.

Finally, does CCS have the capability to make this happen? Their leadership has smart, strong procurement people, and Amabel Grant who was involved way back in the early days of government marketplaces knows more about this sort of stuff than anyone. But we’re not sure how deep the expertise runs; so fingers crossed from a capability point of view.

We do wish CCS well, and it is in everyone’s interest that this initiative succeeds. But this isn’t easy, and we probably won’t know for at least a year whether this is going to be a success or not.

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