On the same day the Cabinet Office confirmed that £1bn worth of public sector IT purchases had been made through the Digital Marketplace, Computer Weekly received word that Tony Singleton, OBE – the man responsible for running it – was moving jobs.
After several years heading up the Digital Marketplace team within the Government Digital Service (GDS), Singleton is off on a “three-year loan” to work as operations director for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) new digital group.
The timing of his departure may strike some as a little strange, given the praise recently heaped on Singleton and the wider Digital Marketplace team for the work they have done to simplify how the public sector buys IT services.
Indeed, in the wake of the Digital Marketplace’s £1bn sales milestone being announced, both government CTO Liam Maxwell and Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock were quick to talk up the work of Singleton and his team at the Sprint 16 conference.
Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly, Singleton says Whitehall’s championing of what the Digital Marketplace team do made the decision to leave easier, and should ensure they have all the support they need to bring in the next £1bn of public sector IT spend.
“There is such a strong team in place here, and I know we are leaving it in safe hands,” he says.
During his two-and-a-half-year tenure, Singleton has overseen the introduction of the Digital Marketplace, as well as its expansion into an online procurement hub for a wide range of public sector IT services.
Its forerunner, CloudStore, served solely as an online storefront for the G-Cloud supplier community, whereas the Digital Marketplace has been expanded to include the Crown Hosting Datacentre Framework, plus the soon-to-be-launched Digital Outcomes and Specialist Framework.
With Singleton due to start his new job on 1 March, he says Digital Marketplace users can expect to see the scope, scale and functionality of it continue to expand long after he goes.
“Having just come through the Spending Review, and putting together and developing our business plan for the next 12 months, and for the three years after that, now is really the time to hand that over to someone else to deliver and start work on their vision,” says Singleton.
“The sort of things we were developing were around really building on the success of what we have achieved to date, and looking at redesigning and redeploying other frameworks on there.”
It just makes sense to look at the best way to put in place the vehicles for the public sector to buy what they want to buy Tony Singleton, Government Digital Service
As part of this, the Digital Marketplace team is already in talks with Iain Patterson, who recently returned to GDS as director of Common Technology Services (CTS), about incorporating the procurement of offerings that fall under his programme’s remit in it.
“It just makes sense to look at the best way to put in place the vehicles for the public sector to buy what they want to buy, and part of that is looking at what else should be on there, in terms of Common Technology Services and so on,” he says.
“So, instead of the Digital Marketplace being thought of as ‘just G-Cloud’, there is so much more we should be looking at to build on the model we’ve already got in place.”
Singleton was already working at the GDS when it was decided to place G-Cloud under its control in the summer of 2013, paving the way for his appointment as the procurement framework’s director.
The framework had been up and running for about 16 months, generating around £33m in public sector cloud spend. Now, just over 95% of the £1bn generated by the Digital Marketplace can be attributed to sales via the G-Cloud framework.
“It is looking back on those sorts of things and what we as a team have achieved that I am most proud of,” says Singleton. “We found out what our users need, where things need to be improved and then look to address how best to go about fixing things.”
Over the same period, the number of suppliers offering their wares through the framework’s four Lots has increased from 257 to 2,500, and the number of these that regularly clinch deals through G-Cloud has risen steadily from 178 to 673.
Supplier involvement has been critical to the success of G-Cloud, says Singleton, and not just because there would not be anything for the public sector to buy if they did not choose to flaunt their wares in the Digital Marketplace.
“They’re really big advocates for what we are doing, and I speak to as many as I can as frequently as my diary allows, because there is always more to learn about what we can do to meet the needs of buyers and suppliers better,” he says.
That is the reason why his successor, Warren Smith – head of strategy and commissioning at the Digital Commercial Programme – has already started taking steps to build relationships with the supplier community, says Singleton.
“They won’t always get what they want, but we do listen and I always think it’s important to explain, if we have to say no to something they have asked for, the reasons why,” he says.
The number of public sector organisations using the framework has risen from 278 when Singleton took over to more than 1,000 now, with 75% of total sales through the framework – as of February 2016 – coming from central government departments.
Getting more local authorities and NHS organisation to use G-Cloud is an ongoing growth priority for the framework, and is another area Singleton says his successor and the rest of the Digital Marketplace team will be seeking to address in the months and years ahead.
“We need to look further into how we get into the wider public sector, in terms of local authorities and the health service”
Tony Singleton, Government Digital Service
This has already seen GDS take steps to cultivate closer ties with SOCITM, the professional body representing public sector IT workers, and the team there is now actively looking for organisations of a similar ilk to work with, he says.
“We need to look further into how we get into the wider public sector, in terms of local authorities and the health service,” says Singleton. “How do we finally crack that and get them to use it properly?”
Over the next 12 to 18 months, another priority for the Digital Marketplace team will be to address supplier demands for an Amazon.com-style shopping cart to be introduced that would make it easier to keep tabs on who is buying what.
“What we want to do is look at how we can deliver an entire end-to-end service for digital products on there, including integrating purchase-to-pay systems, but we need to work out a strategy about how best to do that first,” says Singleton.
But with so much more work still to do, is Singleton not tempted to stay on at GDS and see all these projects and initiatives through to fruition?
“The decision to leave was not an easy one,” he says. “I was asked just before Christmas if I would like to go over and work for this new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills digital group and help set it up in the same way I did with GDS.”
In 2011, Singleton was brought in to help shape the future of GDS, which started life as a startup comprising people working within various, disparate parts of the Cabinet Office who were tasked with championing the government’s digital-by-default agenda.
By the time he became the programme director of G-Cloud, the GDS team had grown from 80 to 500 people, and was a “mature business”.
A similar challenge awaits him at BIS for the next three years, where he will be responsible for helping the department’s burgeoning digital arm get up and running.
“Every government department is different, with its own rules and ways of working, so it’s a fresh challenge from that perspective, but – most importantly of all – taking something through such a major business change is the kind of thing I really enjoy doing,” says Singleton.
“Then I’ll come back in three years and pick up in the Cabinet Office whatever there is to pick up and take forward.”