Strengthening local government transparency

Increasing greater transparency around government spending and contracting data is a long-standing policy objective of NCVO’s public services work.

We do a pretty good job in reporting trends in government funding for the sector with our Civil Society Almanac, which is based on returns made by charities to the Charity Commission, but it’s fair to say that the government’s own spending data is, quite frankly, inadequate.

Detailed information on government spending – both central and local – is important for a number of reasons.

By understanding which organisations and individual services are receiving funding, policymakers can better identify needs, design innovative service solutions, and deliver meaningful social change. Government can’t create a diverse market for the supply of services (a goal of their Open Public Services agenda) if they don’t know who their suppliers are.

In terms of public accountability, knowing which suppliers are being used helps ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately.

Welcome steps

Credit where credit’s due, the government has taken some really encouraging steps towards greater transparency with commitments made under the Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), as highlighted by my colleague Beth.

There have also been improvements to the publishing of local authority spending data with the Local Authority Transparency Code 2015. Indeed, government has recently consulted on strengthening the Code further, which Transparency Code consultation response from NCVO and TSRC (pdf).

Among our recommendations, were:

  • Local authorities should publish their spending data in a machine readable format (for example, .csv) with standardised data headings. The current heterogeneity of data headings used by different authorities makes analysis almost impossible. In the 11,561 machine readable files that we have recently analysed, we were only able to consistently extract the date, amount and recipient name. This alone required algorithms to aggregate the 158 variable names for ‘amount’; 87 ways of denoting ‘recipient’; and 59 ways of defining ‘date’ we identified.
  • Government should mandate the use of charity and / or company numbers for all spending reported under the Code. The use of unique identifiers such as this would not only aid our own analysis, but would also allow government to monitor its pledge to encourage more procurement spend going to the SME sector (which accounts for around 99 percent of charities).
  • Procurement data should be made available via a government website (such as gov.uk) after it has been published locally on authorities’ websites. This has the benefit of allowing authorities to provide information of local importance – such as the social impact of contracts – to local residents, while standardised information required under the Code is published nationally.

In an ideal world…

For the reason mentioned above, efforts to strengthen the Code are very welcome. However, ultimately we believe that the most effective solution to greater contracting data is the extension of the government’s commitments under the Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) to all public bodies at the local level.

Under commitment number 5 of the NAP, the government has committed to using of the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) as this covers all phases of the contracting process, including planning, tender, award, contract, and implementation. It also uses the JSON language format widely used for the exchange of data on the web and analysis by a range of online applications, facilitating analysis by policymakers, academics and the ‘army of armchair auditors’ once envisaged by former Secretary of State, Eric Pickles.

Government aims to implement the OCDS by starting with all Crown Commercial Service (CCS) commissioning by October 2016, and to trial it with HS2. We have recommended that government be bolder, by also trialling the OCDS in a large public service project, such as the Work and Health Programme, with an aim to mandating its use by all public bodies – including local authorities – should the trial prove successful.

And to overcome the lack of transparency around the indirect funding for sub-contractors which the National Audit Office (NAO) has identified as a major weakness with existing data of spend with SMEs – we have recommended that government work with the Open Contracting Partnership and other key stakeholders to update the OCDS so that it covers subcontracting data.

We think these are potentially exciting developments for the data transparency agenda. We will of course report back when we know whether the government has decided to adopt our recommendations on strengthening the Local Authority Transparency Code. And Brexit turmoil notwithstanding, we will continue urging them to implement the OCDS across all public procurement – central and local – as soon as possible. Watch this space.

 

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Paul Winyard Paul Winyard is NCVO’s policy officer. He covers issues around public services, improving commissioning and procurement practice, and advancing the Social Value agenda.

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