Govt framework firms frustrated by lack of work

When government agency OGC Buying Solutions established its new legal service framework in 2007, firms of every size and shape were encouraged to pitch for places on one of eight ­panels in the hope of winning more government work.

Alistair Maughan
Alistair Maughan

Three years on and there is disappointment among many that the expected flood of mandates has not materialised.

Figures for the first ­quarter of 2009-10 show that three of the eight lots included in the framework yielded less than £50,000 worth of work in three months, with the total spent on IP standing at just £2,868.

More than 50 firms have places on at least one of the eight framework panels, but the overall feeling among those who made the grade is disappointment.

“That’s a pretty fair ­summary of how people feel,” says Morrison & Foerster global sourcing head Alistair Maughan, whose firm won a place on the IT panel. “I think people like us on the specialist panels think all the work’s going to large firms on the major projects panel, while those on the major projects panels think it’s all going to the smaller firms.”

The reality is that, for some firms, there simply has not been enough work to justify the outlay required to get on the panel.

A partner at another firm on one of the smaller niche panels echoes the feelings of many.

“As a smaller firm we were told to get onto the panel and we put a lot of effort into doing so,” says the partner. “That was on the understanding that there would be plenty of work.

“We’ve not had a ­single piece of work come solely from being on the panel.”

The new agreement came in to replace the previous framework for procuring government legal work, known as L-Cat, when it started to be phased out three years ago.

One of the key differences was the introduction of full commercial services and major projects panels, attracting the likes of ­Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May. But the extended panel has meant that even more firms ended up disappointed.

Field Fisher Waterhouse IT chief Michael Chissick is one who thinks that more ­competition is inevitable, irrespective of whether a firm is on a panel or not.

“Doing work for the ­Government is pretty ­specialist and there are only a handful of firms that have that expertise,” he explains. “Just because you’re on the panel it doesn’t mean you’re the best-placed firm.

“If you were having heart surgery tomorrow you wouldn’t go to the guy who only started doing it ­yesterday.”

Chissick adds that his firm has “done very well” from the framework, but his seems like an isolated voice.

One of the issues raised repeatedly by those on the panels is the fact that legal advice is still being procured from outside the ­framework.

“Buying Solutions is stuck in the middle,” says one ­partner whose firm secured a panel place. “They have no power to tell them ­[procuring authorities] to use law firms that are on the panel.”

Another adds: “I’m always disappointed when I hear about the QCA [Qualifications and ­Curriculum Authority] using someone like Linklaters. It’s clearly bonkers for a government agency to use a firm like that, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

OGC, which receives a 1 per cent levy for all work procured through the framework, is keen for authorities to use it, but ­cannot insist on it.

Technology Law Alliance partner Jeremy Newton says: “When the Government’s looking for efficiency savings, it’s surprising OGC doesn’t have the power to mandate its use by every authority in the country.”

The total legal spend through the legal service framework in the first ­quarter of last year was £11.2m. The agreements expire in June 2011.