John Suffolk reviews UK interpretation of EC procurement laws

The Government CIO John Suffolk says that the Coalition government is looking at simplifying the UK interpretation of EC procurement laws.For decades, some in government have said that the UK’s interpretation of EC procurement rules is too...

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The Government CIO John Suffolk says that the Coalition government is looking at simplifying the UK interpretation of EC procurement laws.

For decades, some in government have said that the UK’s interpretation of EC procurement rules is too strict - much more rigid than interpretations by other EU countries. If left unchanged, the UK interpretation would make it difficult for buyers to make the cuts required by the Spending Review.

“Government is looking to simplify the UK interpretation of European laws,” said Suffolk. “The UK model is to tick every box and to try and pass all the risk onto suppliers whereas some of the risk is best vested with the client.”

Suffolk said that public authorities are legally obliged to publish any tender above £100,000. “It is illegal to specify product or brand.” That means that public authorities cannot specify an architecture or open source. Legally it is up to the winning ISV - independent software vendor - or the systems integrator to choose the technology stack, the architecture, the subcontractors, and whether to use open-source. 

But, said Suffolk, some bidders are three years behind the times. “Salespeople are talking about cloud [computing] and bid teams are saying: ‘let me put in XP’” [2001]. 

One solution to multiple and costly procurements for similar products for services is for government to place EC advertisements on behalf of the Crown. Then each department and agency can buy under that Crown tender instead of spending money and up to 77 weeks on indulging in its own EC procurement. 

At the SIIA OnDemand Europe conference Suffolk was asked how he will achieve a cultural shift in the way IT is bought, and how he would change the mentality so that departments take advantage of G-Cloud. He replied:

“This is as big a cultural change as technology, which you will have seen from Philip Green review.”  When a department wants to replace all its desktops, it should ask: what exactly is a desktop? It comprises hardware, software, porting, servers, data centres and sometimes a managed service. 

“Historically we would ask suppliers to bid for the whole lot. Going forward we will say: we have data centres so bid for that. We will say we have images of the OS [operating system] … load the OS image and load app image. Do some porting. That will all be disaggregated. So instead of taking 77 weeks under EU rules we will break it down to constituent parts.” There may be a small layer of systems integration on top of the constituent parts.

“When we procure, we will procure on the [basis of the] whole of government.” Suffolk said the law is explicit. If he wanted to buy a case management system for the Crown Prosecution Service, and if the wording in the EC Journal said that the system was for Crown Prosecution Service, the law required that the system were used by the CPS only.

“If you ask for a case management system for the public sector, legally anybody in the public sector can use that case management system. There are some legal nuances about whether that is too broad and the answer is that we are happy to take the risk.

“Government is buying this stuff, not a specific public body.” Suffolk said that currently there may be thousands of unnecessary procurements. “Much of this stuff is common: open it up…We may try and build everything into it [the procurement], rather than building in just the components we want.” 

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Comment:

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of what Suffolk says. There is massive duplication of buying within the public sector, aggravated by the love of complexity among the major suppliers and the desire among Sir Humphries to retain their department’s uniqueness, which makes them seemingly untouchable. The question is: will heads of departments, agencies and public authorities heed Suffolk’s advice? 

Or more pertinently, should they be forced to heed his advice?

Links:


Time to be Brave Minister - Erudine paper 

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