Open Contracting: promoting transparency in public procurement
From stationary supplies to major infrastructure projects like roads, schools and hospitals governments across the world are increasingly looking to the private sector to supply goods and services to their citizens. With the global value of this sort of outsourced procurement by the public sector now exceeding US$9.5 trillion each year (15% of global GDP)[i] there is also growing pressure on governments to ensure their procurement processes are open, fair and transparent.
As a member of the international Open Government Partnership this has already been on the agenda in the UK for some time, and significant progress has already been made. Now, as we move towards the publication of the UK’s 3rd Open Government National Action Plan in spring, the devolved governments across the UK are engaging with the question of how to embed greater transparency into their contracting processes.
On the 11th April 2016 the Open Contracting Partnership (an independent organisation working internationally with governments, businesses, civil society organisations, academia, and the media to open up government procurement) held a meeting in Edinburgh with representatives from the UK’s 3 devolved governments, and the civil society networks working on Open Government in these areas. The purpose of this meeting was both to raise awareness of what was already being done by each administration to progress this agenda and explore opportunities for further work and collaboration regarding the policy, practice and technology of open contracting.
Reviewing what was already happening in each nation showed that quite a lot is already being done in relation to providing open access to information at the tendering and contracting stages of procurement, particularly through platforms like Public Contracts Scotland, Sell2Wales and eSourcingNI. Sites like these not only allow the wider public to access information regarding public sector contracting but play an important role in establishing a level playing field for businesses of all sizes, especially smaller firms, enabling fairer competition.
The principles of open contracting however are not limited to ensuring a fair and transparent tendering process but extend throughout the whole life-cycle of a contract, allowing for public scrutiny of all aspects of expenditure and delivery. Discussions within the workshop acknowledged that there are currently gaps and inconsistencies in the information routinely published at the post-award stage: including information on contract value; additional conditions; performance management; and termination of contracts. Developing procedures for the systematic disclosure of this information is something which will need to be addressed if governments are to fully commit to implementing the Open Contracting Partnership’s Global Principles and Open Contracting Data Standard.
Throughout the course of the afternoon a range of other shared challenges and opportunities were also highlighted which, while initially calling for action at a sub-national level, may also provide opportunities for further collaboration across the UK.
- Harnessing the power of open data is a central tool for ensuring greater transparency in public sector procurement. As governments at all levels have developed more systematic and interconnected approaches to contracting vast amounts of information is now being collected that can be used to track expenditure, improve performance and reduce waste. Much of this is already in the public domain, but it is not all necessarily available as ‘data’ in accessible, standardised or useable formats. Finding ways to manage the progressive release of both historic and current data in co-ordinated, user-friendly and constructive ways was identified as a key challenge for governments. For the representatives at this meeting at least it was not a question of controlling or limiting what is put out but rather managing context to ensure that, rather than just being a ‘big data dump’, it is provided in ways that provide a useful resource for businesses, governments, civil society groups and the public alike.
- Across the UK governments there is growing divergence in both policy positions and legislations that have an impact on the open contracting agenda: including differing approaches to Freedom of Information, sustainable procurement duties and public rights to request participation in decision making to name but a few. Further each of the devolved nations has differing powers and policy responsibilities. The challenge identified at this workshop was not however about ensuring consistency. Instead it was recognised that differences will be inevitable and the challenge therefore would be to make sure there is clear and transparent information regarding this, particularly in a contracting environment which often crosses regional borders and fields of responsibility.
- A key aspect of the open contracting programme, yet one which has not yet been tackled in a structured way by any of the governments represented at this workshop, is the direct participation of citizens in contracting: in the planning for procurement; the direct assessment of tenders; and/or in assessing whether goods and services delivered were of a high enough quality. Pursuing this would not only allow governments to demonstrate greater accountability over the expenditure of public funds but also would be an opportunity to give citizens greater control over those services that mean most to them. A number of examples were given at the meeting, particularly from Scotland, illustrating how the public had been involved in one-off contracting processes and there appeared to be a genuine appetite to explore how this could be extended… and this for me personally was the highlight of the afternoon.
Holding this meeting in Edinburgh, particularly at a time when Scotland has just been approved as one of 15 Open Government Sub-National Pioneers, could be just the impetus the Scottish Government and our civil society network needs to embrace some of the opportunities identified to become world leaders in this field and I, for one, hope we can keep this momentum going.
Photo: Jérôme Dessommes – ÉCRIVAINS CONSULT® CC0