The Government Digital Service has published the initial findings of work it is carrying out with the Crown Commercial Service to improve the government’s procurement and contracting process.
The work, which was started in July last year, aims to ensure that, by 2020, the government uses user-centred, design-led, data-driven and open approaches when developing all its contracts.
The team said at the time that hosting simpler, shorter contracts online would “encourage a more diverse range of suppliers to apply to supply their services to government”.
The move is part of wider plans to boost innovation and competition in government procurement to bring in smaller companies and reduce Whitehall spending on contracts.
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GDS plans to develop and test ‘model contracts’ that can be used for some of the most commonly used goods and services and it has now published the findings of the discovery phase, which reveal some of the most common concerns and bugbears for those involved in contracting.
The research involved 53 buyers, suppliers and legal experts from central and local government, who were part of a 190-strong group of people that have signed up to be ‘good contract champions’.
As well as confirming that users of government contracts want them to be fit for purpose, legally enforceable, clear and precise, the research also looked at the existing contract process and asked the participants how it could be improved.
Both buyers and suppliers said that the procurement and contracting process was time-consuming, with buyers pointing to the time spent preparing requirements, answering supplier questions, evaluating bids and preparing the final contract to award.
For suppliers, as well as the time spent preparing the bid and seeking answers to questions, they also felt they had to spend time supporting buyers through the procurement process.
They told the GDS team they wanted “to be confident in the knowledge of the buyer when it came to the procurement process” as well as wanting to feel that buyers “fully understand their bid”.
Meanwhile, buyers indicated that they were concerned about making sure the “amount of time spent completing contracts was proportional to the size of the procurement”.
Another common complaint from the participants was below-par document management, with teams emailing documents back and forth, which GDS said brought “a risk of poor version control and peer review issues”.
It was important that both buyers and suppliers can find the latest version of a contract, GDS said, and that suppliers have “complete confidence that government knows what it has bought and can understand and manage its contracts”.
‘Clear and relevant content’
The research also found that the content at every stage of the process was important, with participants pointing out that a single document often has to be used by a range of audiences, meaning that content must be as clear and relevant as possible.
“The structure and design of the contract has to be of a high standard and the language needs to be simple,” GDS said.
The service added that, although there are “merits to the breadth of frameworks, it is important that detail is thoughtfully included and the content is relevant so there are no unnecessary barriers to use”.
This also applies to the terms and conditions, with GDS noting that using the same terms and conditions across a broad category “could prove to be problematic”, for instance with high-level, generic definitions, like “cloud”.
In addition, some suppliers told GDS that they “felt that the way that certain clauses are written make it more difficult to comply with them”.
GDS said that the alpha scope would define which of the areas that came up repeatedly during discovery would be tested out in the next phase, where the team will develop ‘model contracts’ for commonly used goods and services.
The government has repeatedly championed changes to procurement processes to make them fit for a digital age, but there were reports earlier this week that the pressures of the UK’s exit from the European Union was causing departments to simply extend contracts, rather than re-tendering them.
According to an article in the Financial Times, more than 250 contracts are close to expiry or have already expired in 2016-17, but that Brexit has “pushed them down the list of priorities so there are lots of extensions and re-extensions of existing deals”.