Transparency in public services contracts

High profile failures by some of the big private sector contractors in recent times, and a perceived failure properly to account for these to the public, are leading to increasingly urgent calls for the government and private sector providers to take steps to increase disclosure around government contracting. NCVO wants to make sure that these proposals are appropriate for voluntary sector providers of all sizes and not just for the big private sector providers that currently dominate the public procurement market.

We charities have a pretty good track record when it comes to telling people what we spend their money on. With most of our work funded by public donations, we have a clear incentive to be open and transparent about where that money goes. We get rewarded by high levels of public trust and confidence relative to other sorts of institutions in the public sphere.

Yet before we get too smug about our transparency record, it is important to acknowledge that the second largest source of funding for the voluntary sector is currently government money, much of it provided in the form of contracts for delivering public services. Despite the government’s commitment to being ‘the most open and transparent in the world’, taxpayers seeking to follow this money are arguably still at risk of finding themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Why does transparency matter?

At first glance, concern about transparency in contracting might seem like a problem for the public and private sectors rather than the voluntary sector. Yet international evidence from countries like Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Paraguay that have made their government contracting more open suggests that this not only improves accountability of governments to their citizens, but also contributes to wider outcomes that have significant benefits to society.

Open contracting:

  • creates a more level playing field that facilitates fairer competition between providers seeking to bid for contracts to deliver public services.
  • is associated with improved performance in delivering public services contracts because it shows where government can do better and empowers citizens to make informed choices
  • contributes to a climate for much-needed economic growth.

What is being done to improve transparency?

The National Audit Office recently issued a challenge to both the government and private sector suppliers to address the lack of transparency over the role that contractors play, the business that they do, the rewards that they make and the way they perform.

The Institute for Government has also recommended increased public transparency around contract performance. They want transparency measures to be built into government contracts, with requirements to publish details of spend, performance, sub-contractors, and user feedback, where applicable.

The Confederation of British Industry is supporting these sorts of practical changes because they want to build public confidence in private sector providers. Do you agree with their proposals to publish all government contracts online, use open book accounting as standard, ensure the NAO has access rights to government contracts with business, and include transparency clauses in public services contracts?

Should there be a transparency clause and if so how should it look?

These ideas are coming together in the form of proposals for a standardised transparency clause in government contracts for delivering public services. NCVO wants to make sure that these proposals work for voluntary sector providers – both large and small – and not just for the big private sector providers that are currently winning a disproportionate share of government contracts.

If you are an organisation involved directly in public services delivery or advocating more open and transparent government contracting, we would love to hear your views on the following questions:

  • Should there be a standardised transparency clause?
  • What should a transparency clause look to achieve?
  • What attributes would a clause need to achieve its goals?
  • What are some of the implementation issues that need to be considered?

What are the trade-offs on transparency?

If you support the introduction of a standardised transparency clause, we are very interested in hearing your views on some of the difficult design questions that need to be addressed.

The scope of information such a clause should cover

If you are an organisation currently working as a sub-contractor in a supply chain, you may have an opinion on whether information about the flow of funds from the prime to sub-contractors should be made public, as well as the name of the organisation delivering the front line service.

Whether the clause should make public comparative performance data on different sub-contractors

Please let us know what contextual information would be necessary to ensure published performance data accurately reflects the particular challenges faced by organisations working with clients that have very complex needs, or in deprived communities.

Whether certain categories of information should not be covered by the clause, such as pricing and IP information

Is this information too sensitive to be disclosed or would it undermine your ability to win contracts in a competitive market?

What contracts the clause should apply to

We want to know whether you think a clause of this kind should apply only to contracts above a certain value threshold, and whether it should only apply to services or be extended to goods and works. How can we avoid small charities being made subject to unreasonable Freedom of Information requests that might impose an unacceptable administrative burden?

What the publication requirements should be

Do you have views on who should be required to publish data gathered through a transparency clause, how often it should be published, and in what format?  How can we ensure publication requirements are proportionate and do not create an unacceptable burden for providers?

Please let us know your views before the 3 December

This debate is happening right now and we want to make sure your contribution counts! Please leave a comment below.

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Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll is NCVO’s Head of Policy & Public Services. She has a decade’s experience of senior level working in policy and research for overseas development organisations.

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