This morning Alan Wylie mentioned me in a tweet about Lambeth Council’s intention to spend up to half a million pounds on RFID equipment over the next five years using something called a “framework agreement”. It quite spoiled my morning coffee.
Let me tell you why…
Many years ago framework agreements were introduced to simplify the procurement process for local authorities. Basically the idea was that ‘experts’ would draw up contract schedules that could be used by local authorities to buy equipment and services without them having to do all that cumbersome investigation and assessment before spending millions of pounds. The experts would do it for them. It’s not a bad idea, provided you have the experts.
One of the organisations offering to carry out this complex work on behalf of councils is ESPO, the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation. In 2010 ESPO’s library RFID experts drew up a new framework agreement to make the process of buying self-service equipment for libraries much simpler. (Other Purchasing Organisations are available including, the Central Buying Consortium (CBC), North East Procurement Organisation (NEPO), West Mercia Supplies (WMS), and Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO). Together with ESPO these make up the “Pro5” group – “five of the largest public sector professional buying organisations in the UK with a combined purchasing power in excess of £2 billion per annum”).
Now I have to declare an interest here. Back in 2007 I had seen a copy of ESPO’s original framework agreement and was sufficiently alarmed by its apparent lack of understanding of library IT that I wrote to them to suggest some changes. They didn’t answer.
Again in 2010 – when ESPO added new suppliers to a new framework agreement I wrote about my concerns that it might not be fit for purpose on my blog. By then it was apparent to most independent observers that, contrary to ESPO’s thesis, RFID was not in fact a commodity product that could be ‘called off’ from stock once a price had been fixed. That approach was a bit like buying your new toaster in Singapore and expecting to use it in Towcester. Lots of disappointed UK librarians had already begun to hide dysfunctional hardware in their basements by 2010.
Obviously a new agreement was now needed to deal with the more complex issues of integration with library automation systems, incorporating new data standards being published by the ISO (International Standards Organisation) and ending the supplier ‘lock-in’ that the original frameworks had helped to create.
Or so I thought.
I wrote to ESPO’s experts offering to help them revise the framework – free of charge – in any way I could. I thought that perhaps my 30 years of experience working in library automation, combined with my role in bringing together all the major UK RFID suppliers to agree to support a UK data standard, (as most European libraries had already done) might be relevant. I pointed out that I worked entirely as an adviser to libraries and the industry, was a member of various standards bodies, had no commercial interest in supplying equipment and spoke at conferences all over the world on library use of RFID.
What I hadn’t appreciated was that ESPO’s expertise lies in the science of procurement rather than technology. (ESPO take a percentage off of every deal for which the framework is used from the suppliers they approve). I received a polite reply advising me that the framework was fine thank you, and needed no input from any so-called ‘experts’, standards organisations or anyone else and that no, I couldn’t see a copy.
So that battle was lost. But I wasn’t too downhearted. I knew that slowly RFID systems that hadn’t been designed to limit choice and prevent buyers from going elsewhere to seek competitive bids would slowly disappear as new, post-2011 contracts would be using data standards supported by everyone.
And then I saw Lambeth’s announcement.
Now I have known for some time that many councils are turning libraries into hubs to deliver council services. Sometimes this is done well and sometimes not so well, but this is not an argument about whether that’s a process we should welcome or not.
It’s not even an argument about whether framework agreements are a good idea or not. It’s an argument about whether councils are using them correctly.
Libraries – like all council services – are under enormous pressure to save money. One of the ways that they seek to do this is by introducing self-service equipment in their branches. One of the ways they can buy this equipment is through the ESPO 350 framework.
Another way that councils can save money is by making the public use self-service to do other things like paying council tax or applying for benefits.
It was probably Hounslow that first saw the possibility of using the same machines that delivered self-service loans to deliver other council services. They introduced a Bibliotheca product called “My Community” to their branches back in 2011 (and at my invitation presented about it at the RFID conference later that same year). Many other local authorities have followed suit since.
Now of course councils are accountable for the financial decisions they make and there are laws and regulations that ensure that they seek competitive bids before making expensive procurements. No doubt the voters of Hounslow, the Isle of Wight, and elsewhere will want to know how their councils went about buying “My Community” for their libraries, and no doubt proper procedures were followed. What’s a bit different about Lambeth is that their submission contains the following statement:
“RFID technology is common in many libraries across the UK. At its most basic it can allow citizens to deposit and borrow items (books, CDs, DVDs) using self-service machines. A more advanced version also allows people to make non-library related payments to the Council (e.g. Council Tax and rent). The Commission reached the view that the introduction of RFID self-service technology into the Lambeth Library Service was critical both to ensure the future sustainability of the service and to support the introduction of co-production and adoption of a cooperative model.”
which appears to suggest that RFID is needed to run the “My Community” software which – according to the presentation given by Laing and Bibliotheca’s representatives in 2011 – it isn’t.
“My Community” isn’t a “more advanced” (whatever that is) version of RFID – it’s a proprietary software product developed by Capita and Bibliotheca. It might well use RFID to read membership cards or it might not – but plenty of other applications can do that – but the way in which RFID is used to deliver library services has absolutely nothing to do with how “My Community” delivers other services.
So to make the case for “calling off” almost £400K’s worth of RFID equipment for Lambeth’s libraries one might presume that ESPO’s 350 framework agreement also covers the use of “My Community”. If it doesn’t then how can Lambeth justify buying software to run its non-library, non-RFID services by referencing an agreement that deals exclusively with RFID in libraries? I’ve written to ESPO again this morning to ask for a copy of the current agreement. So far they have advised me that the framework can only be seen by people who are using it to make procurements. (“that’s a hell of a catch, that Catch-22”)
So there may well be other companies that could offer a more competitive solution – indeed one that wouldn’t be restricted to libraries but unless there’s a tender process it’s impossible to know.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that anyone is doing anything wrong here. I am however suggesting that supplying something as complicated as integrated council IT services using a system designed to manage library loans might go slightly beyond the remit of the framework agreement – but since we can’t see it, we can’t know. But certainly there’s nothing on ESPO’s site to suggest that 350 deals with anything other than buying RFID equipment for libraries. (Not even how to make it work when you’ve bought it!)
Many councils have circumvented the EU procurement process (entirely legally) to buy products like My Community after they have installed self-service machines in their libraries (often using the library budget to do so). Generally the product can be priced below the threshold that would otherwise trigger a tender process.
Lambeth’s more democratic and upfront approach acknowledges that buying My Community is one of the reasons for spending the library budget by “calling off” more RFID equipment from an existing framework agreement, one that may not contain a single reference to non-library, non-RFID services.
It’s certainly a more honest approach.
A more cynical person might suggest that using the library budget and an inappropriate library framework agreement to buy services that many believe will eventually bring about the destruction of the library service is the ultimate irony.
But I’m far too positive a person to make such a suggestion myself.