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I’ve been pondering recently whether there is actually such a thing as procurement for Agile, and if there is, can it exist within the public sector?

One of the useful things about Agile methodology is that it breaks the traditional “iron triangle” of scope, cost, and schedule. Fundamentally only cost and schedule are fixed at the outset, with the detailed scope being worked out through a series of Sprints.  

However, this begs the question, “how do we know what to procure if the full scope is not understood?”

The very nature of the question though confuses traditional and agile methodologies. From a procurement point of view, we need to learn to be less concerned about what is in scope and more concerned about how the scope will be delivered. 

The components that need to be procured are therefore the resource required for the programme and any specific toolsets that will be required for the resource to develop the products that will be assembled into the eventual outcome.

For anyone intending to use Agile as a methodology, engagement with procurement needs to be almost the first conversation they have. Of course, there may be an established team of developers already in place, but there will almost certainly be gaps that need to be identified and resource sourced to fill the gaps as required by the programme. The timing of how long this will take – and the likely budget required – will both need to be factored in ahead of the start of the first Sprint. 

I recently commented that I had concerns regarding how this worked in the public sector. Specifically, the governance and processes now surrounding Crown Commercial Services Digital Outcomes and Specialists 2, Technology Services 2, and (to a lesser extent) GCloud9 Frameworks are starting to impede rather than enable Agile. For GCloud9 (likely the first stop in sourcing toolsets and implementation services) the initial desk search from long to short “list” may well only take a day or so, but if there is then a need to down-select by undertaking a fair and transparent clarification exercise the likelihood is a final supplier will not be identified until between six and ten days in – and it could well be more. With the customer then needing to prepare a draft call off, submit to the supplier for review and, hopefully, have them return a contract that fully complies with their catalogue entry and is capable of sign off will rarely be achieved – compliantly (and I chose that word carefully here) – in less than three working weeks. Add then the need to issue a supporting purchase order (if not already prepared) and complete appropriate reporting activity to Crown Commercial and logging on Contracts Finder (if required) and we can easily see ourselves a month older than we were!

The situation is worse with both Digital Outcomes and Specialists 2 and Technology Services 2. Both were welcomed for the way they have opened up the marketplace to suppliers who have traditionally struggled to access public sector work, but with over 100 suppliers on most of the TS2 lots (which many may claim isn’t really a framework that can actively support Agile), and over 1500 suppliers on DOS2 a framework that is specifically intended to support the use of Agile, the time it actually takes to carry out a compliant and fair engagement with the market can easily span into several months.

This hasn’t gone unremarked within the market, with suppliers saying that they are questioning if time to engage with the process, never mind time to secure a confirmed engagement, is worth the effort. Indeed for many smaller providers, it’s a fair likelihood that by the time the offer to contract is received they will, out of necessity, found other work to pay the bills! 

Can procurement really justify a programme that just getting to a point of being able to source developer, scrum master and product owner resource for an Agile project may well take longer than the project itself?

I’m not sure we can – or indeed should even try – but what we certainly need to do is educate our stakeholders about the current constraints to Agile within the public sector. The main factor for me is timeliness. If you are already anticipating projects for next financial year – i.e. commencing April 2018 – and this will ideally be delivered using Agile – then the initial planning of likely term and budget needs to be being rehearsed with procurement now, as we will need to start engaging with the market over the course of the next two months and putting in place enabling call-offs (suitably caveated) to support the anticipated programme slate. 

This may lead to a number of nugatory exercises, mainly because there will be some changes both to business and budgetary priority, but I’d far rather this than encourage colleagues to dig their heels in and refuse to undertake the procurement until after the budget is fully confirmed. If we do that then we’ll have to explain to the business that the timeline for the proposed project can’t be met because of procurement process!

In closing, aside from encouraging the reality is shared colleagues across our teams, can I also suggest that now is a good time to start capturing our user stories as buyers with the relevant frameworks and feedback to colleagues at Crown Commercial and GDS. I’m not suggesting that in future the governance around framework call-offs should be relaxed – just that it should be appropriate to the extent of the procurement.  Experiences from the real world will need to inform the next generation of frameworks if we are to align procurement to an Agile world.

Martin Medforth is a highly experienced commercial specialist and negotiator with over 20 years track record of successfully implementing and supporting change initiatives.

He has a particular interest in understanding the behavioural dynamics that exist between supply and buy side in significant contractual relationships and as a Mediator is interested in working with clients to resolve misunderstandings before dispute arises and identify ways to benefit from greater partnership.


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