When I first started working in the UK government sector, many years ago in the mid-1990s, it took some time to understand the jargon. “Frameworks,” for instance, were not the initial stages of a construction project, but something that resembled (to some extent) the “approved supplier lists” that were familiar to me from the private sector. That is, a list of chosen suppliers where some overarching terms and conditions had been agreed in advance of specific contract formation.

At the time, in the UK certainly, use of these frameworks was not well regulated by the EU (European Union) or the UK government. Using frameworks was a bit of a free-for-all. But over the next 20 years, we gradually saw clearer regulation and guidance about the use of these important tools for public sector buyers. But there were complexities around their use and the legislation; a friend of mine even co-wrote an entire book about the topic [1] to explain those issues.

Over time, more and more public organizations in every sector, from health to education, from the police to central government, put in place frameworks. Some did so in order to use them directly, although they often allowed others to use their frameworks too. In other cases, collaborative procurement bodies put frameworks in place designed for many organizations. Frameworks became a useful tool, saving time, resources and money, because buyers did not have to run an entirely new, advertised and open process every time they wished to make a purchase. They could choose a framework and either select a supplier directly (if that was appropriate and legal to do so) or run a “mini” or “call-off” competition to choose a supplier from the firms on the framework.

However, we saw new issues emerging. There was misuse of frameworks – buyers simply choosing their favorite supplier from the list, when really, they should have been running some sort of competitive process. Some of the legal issues got rather complex, and we also saw framework proliferation. That came about sometimes for sensible reasons, based on genuine requirements. But more dubious drivers also came into play.

For instance, most organizations that put frameworks in place charged a small fee – usually to the supplier – in order to fund the management of the arrangement. Nothing wrong with that intrinsically, if the fee is reasonable and the framework has a solid “business case” behind it. But we also saw frameworks put in place with the express purpose of making money for the framework manager. Sometimes that was not even a public body – there have been interesting cases where a private firm has implanted itself in the process in order to make money.

So today, the good news is that a government buyer looking to buy anything from stationery to legal services, from complex medical equipment to construction services, is faced with multiple framework options that might help. In some cases, there are literally dozens of frameworks out there that might be appropriate. But on the negative side, that makes it a confusing landscape, and it is not always clear whether a framework has been professionally developed and is well-managed by the originator.

Around six years ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine, one of the best CPOs I’ve ever met, who was working in the public sector for the first time in his career. He was both enthusiastic and confused by these frameworks. “I know we should be using more – it would save us a lot of time and money. But there are so many to choose from!” he said.

What was needed, we agreed, was a platform of some sort that would tell him which frameworks were available and give him the sort of information he needed to choose which was most appropriate. Maybe if that tool could then help him navigate right through to choosing the best supplier on that framework, then even better. Unfortunately, our discussion stayed at the “chat over a beer” level, rather than giving rise to a dynamic and successful new tech business which might have made us both our fortunes.

So, when Framespan was explained to me a few months ago, my immediate reaction was – “yes, it’s a great idea, but I should have done it years ago!” Well, there goes my fortune, but joking aside I was pleased to see the team led by Ed Bradley (one of the founders of supply chain tech firm Virtualstock) grasping the opportunity to help public sector buyers make better use of frameworks. The platform has been running for some months now, with the biggest user base in the UK National Health Service (NHS), although it has the potential to be equally useful across the whole public sector.

Framespan provides information about pretty much every UK public sector framework, what it covers, the suppliers on it and so on. It has been very well received, and I’ve seen positive user comments from NHS buyers such as:

“We have been using this within the team and I must say that the concept and the current Platform is fantastic.” Ross Cumber, Category Manager, Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

“A great idea to pull the framework offerings together into one location for easy access. It helps towards improving our service as we can provide quicker answers and guidance to our stakeholders ….” Gareth Nixon, Head of Procurement – SS&SP, University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust

“Framespan has been a real game changer for us. The portal is very easy to use and saves the days/hours/minutes looking for a needle in a haystack.” David Murtagh, Procurement Manager, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust

There is clearly more that can, and will, be done with Framespan as the team develops it further. As a taxpayer, I’m very keen that frameworks are used properly, to drive value, not just to make life easy for buyers or help budget holders favor their pet firms. So as the platform develops, I look forward to seeing it not just help buyers identify what is available, but also assist them in maximizing the value obtained from frameworks. The outcomes we want to see? Robust compliance, lower transaction costs, better supplier choices — and ultimately excellent value-for-money contracts for the public sector.

[1] The Law and Economics of Framework Agreements: Designing Flexible Solutions for Public Procurement

(Gian Luigi Albano and Caroline Nicholas)