Broadband – scrutiny and contract 3

In February, I discovered that ESCC actually gave the go-ahead for a third phase of procurement activity (“contract 3”) at the cabinet meeting on 15 November 2016.  However, this involves no new spending whatsoever by ESCC.  All the money is coming from two other sources: central government (again not new money, but underspend on contracts 1 and 2) and clawback from BT – essentially where BT were paid “too much” for contracts 1 and 2 because they underestimated demand – this is known as “Gainshare”.  So far I cannot see anywhere in the council minutes that tells one how much money will therefore be available for contract 3 – and without knowing that it is hard to predict how significant contract 3 will be.

On 23rd February 2017, I actually appeared in front of the scrutiny committee to present my evidence in person.

It was an interesting, thought not really pleasurable, experience.

I was told at the beginning that half an hour had been allocated to my evidence.  I had been led to expect a series of questions from the chairman and members of the board but that was not what transpired.

They had asked to see all my evidence package in advance, and then the chairman started off by thanking me for the evidence that I had submitted: they had all read it and understood it and he didn’t want to waste the meeting’s time by simply going through what I had already said.

This was a disconcerting start because no-one had any follow-up questions or comments on what I had said.  (I felt like a stand-up comedian giving a matinee performance in front of a sparse audience of Japanese tourists!)  Fortunately I did have a contingency plan: I expanded, with examples, on my theme that while they may have achieved much with contracts 1 and 2, they had done a very poor job on communicating with their ultimate end-users: us.  In either direction: neither communicating outwards nor listening.

As I say, there was absolutely no engagement or question or debate from members of the scrutiny board, but there was one refreshing exception: someone called Stephen Frith, who had a badge saying “Commercial adviser” and who I understand to be a BDUK employee who acts as a liaison between the e-Sussex broadband team and the BDUK organization.  Unlike the other members of the board, he was open and engaged with what I was saying and provided some useful feedback and information.

This is where the good news comes in.  Contract 3 will still be within a BDUK framework, but I got a hint that they have learned from contracts 1 and 2, and contract 3 will be more intelligent than the previous ones.  Apart from the fact that it will be open to competing bidders (and they can award contracts to more than one supplier), there will be more flexibility (within the BDUK contract 3 framework) to meet local needs and he mentioned a “points” system for evaluating proposals which will take into account the fact that there is more benefit when someone goes from 2Mbps to 10Mbps than when someone goes from 20Mbps to 28Mbps for example – he said this points system would be in the contract 3 procurement document.  it seems to me that if this is properly worked out, it would mean that suppliers had a positive incentive to do the “worst first”.

Stephen Frith also responded to one of my points, the apparent direct contradiction between this promise in the paper for the cabinet meeting of 15th November 2016:

    Clear visibility of which premises will be connected and when

and this statement in the procurement consultation that was opened the same day:

    an opportunity to substitute premises through change control where alternative cheaper premises emerge after the survey stage.

Stephen Frith responded that they recognized that “substitution” had caused significant problems during previous contracts, and they were going to handle it by allowing it only during the planning stage of contract 3 but not during the implementation stage, and that this would be in the contract 3 procurement documents.

It is hard to be sure what one has achieved by all this.  But I do feel moderately hopeful that BDUK have learned lessons so that the next contract will be a little more intelligent – and I think that the amount of “noise” that we have created around this issue does mean that ESCC will be forced to raise their game a little.

However, I don’t think we know what the timescales of contract 3 are, and I am not clear what the total budget is either, so we have a long way to go yet.

I do have one other observation about the meeting that I am not willing to put into an writing.  Perhaps there will be another way of communicating it in due course.

PS Since writing the above, the scrutiny report has been published.

{there is a cover document and then the main report is Appendix 1.