Thursday, July 07, 2011

In defence of frameworks

An interesting outcome from Adrian Wooster's recent survey of opinions on BDUK's framework for wholesale broadband infrastructure - not a popular approach it would seem. I was one of the 14% of Adrian's respondents who think that BDUK's proposed framework is a good idea, and, in keeping with Adrian's request on his blog, here are my reasons.

I think a key advantage of frameworks is the opportunity they present to simplify and speed up public procurements, as well as offering value for money. See this recent example for how JANET's Telecommunications Framework saved the London Grid for Learning (LGfL) a significant amount of time and money.

Having been involved in several full EU procurements in my time at Becta (we established a number of procurement frameworks for the education sector, with the outcomes of the recent James Review acknowledging the importance of our ICT Services Framework - see page 62 of Sebastian James' report; the irony of this endorsement coming in the week following Becta's final closure was not lost on me), frameworks offer a means to short-circuit what can be an extremely lengthy and expensive process for purchasers. Which could mean significantly quicker deployments once BDUK's framework is in place.

Which isn't to say that frameworks aren't without their problems. While a framework can assist a potential purchaser, the purchaser still needs to approach any framework properly. A framework is simply a pre-selection exercise. Purchasers still need to draw up their requirements properly and tender them through the framework - it's certainly not a case of "just pick one of these suppliers and all will be fine". So a framework procurement should be approached like any other procurement, in terms of the amount of preparation and planning the customer should undertake to draw up their requirements, and the diligence with which the customer should scrutinise suppliers' proposals.

I fully acknowledge the concerns about frameworks discriminating against smaller companies. This is something we were confronted with at Becta regularly. Unfortunately, I don't know of any easy way to mitigate this. Prime contractors need to be of sufficient stature to be able to undertake the level of business that it's envisaged will go through the framework. Our approach at Becta was to encourage smaller suppliers to work with framework providers as a route to market, and vice-versa to encourage innovation, but in truth both we (and our framework suppliers) could have done a lot more to facilitate this.

The role of the informed customer is crucial in this context. The customer can create a situation where framework providers can (are required to?) work with smaller local concerns for mutual advantage. Unfortunately, because provision on this scale is complex and difficult, it's not surprising that telcos can and do play the "don't you worry your pretty little head about all this, let us do it all for you...just sign here" card, which can be very hard for local authorities and bodies struggling to get to grips with this area to resist.

However, for authorities that have grasped the nettle of broadband provision, and understand its opportunities as well as complexities, ways can be found to work together. Kent seem to be particularly progressive in this regard in my opinion. The JANET LLU reports I've mentioned previously on this blog are an excellent example of how telecoms provision can be de-mystified with a little work. Local bodies and authorities need to approach the market by saying "this is what we want from you" (commissioning), rather than by asking the market simply "what are you prepared to sell us?"

In my view, frameworks are good at delivering commodity but not very good at encouraging innovation. Which is why the informed customer role is so important, to provide a bridge between the framework suppliers, local circumstances and smaller, innovative concerns who have a lot to offer in this space, as numerous projects around the country demonstrate.

It comes down to how well a framework is conceived in the first place and subsequently how well it's used by those purchasing through it. Like any tool, a framework can be designed and wielded well or badly. If the tool is well designed, great. But if the tool doesn't reflect the requirements of its potential users, that's a problem.


  1. Sounds sensible the way you describe it, and to be honest the only counties I know much about are northern ones, and so far they have made a right mess of it. They have fallen for the 'don't worry your pretty little head' trick and are totally ignoring innovation from the grassroots and smaller companies.
    So we will end up with BET and satellites and it will all be to do again.
    or we
    JFDI ourselves, and I think we will.

  2. When is this JFDI starting?! Been talked about for a long time...