Open contracting and grant transparency

On 12 May, the government took some important steps towards improving transparency around public spending.

As part of the 2016-18 Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), launched during the May 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit, the government has made new commitments to use open contracting and to improve the data it publishes on grant making. These commitments were developed with input from NCVO and many other voluntary sector organisations through the UK Open Government Civil Society Network.

We believe that this exciting transparency development could improve public services in a number of ways.  It will increase government accountability for its spending decisions by making it easier for citizens, voluntary sector organisations and parliament to monitor where funding goes. It will also help government understand which organisations its funding is reaching, and enable it to play a greater role in market stewardship.

Key commitments

Grant transparency

We strongly support government’s plans to collect more detailed data on its grant making and to make more of this information publically available. Government is working to improve the Government Grants Information System (GGIS), which it recently established for internal use by government departments for recording grant making, by gathering and standardising more information. It will do this by implementing the 360 Giving Standard, a framework for publishing detailed grants data.

The adoption of the 360 Giving Standard will represent a step change in the quality of government grant data. In particular, it requires the collection of unique identifiers, such as charity numbers, for grant recipients. This change, which NCVO has been calling for, will make it possible for government and others to produce accurate aggregate figures for grant giving which can be compared with other databases, such as that held by the Charity Commission.

This will make it easier for government to look at how grant policies affect different organisations, such as the proportion of grants going to the voluntary sector. Having a unique identifier could also make it easier for commissioners to search for additional information about potential providers.

Government is aiming to make more of the GGIS data available to the public through the Grants Register by March 2018. Whilst the data to be made public is yet to be decided, NCVO hopes that, to make the most of this opportunity, government publishes all possible data.

Open contracting

We are also very supportive of government’s plans to implement open contracting through applying the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS), a framework for publishing data from all phases of contracting. This will ensure that key information about contracts is made available and published in a consistent way, which, as we have said before, could improve monitoring and market stewardship.

Government aims to implement the OCDS across government, starting by using it for all Crown Commercial Service commissioning. It will also trial the approach in infrastructure projects such as HS2. NCVO believes that government should also trial the OCDS in a large service delivery programme.

While the adoption of the OCDS is a big step forward, we hope it is only the first in a longer open contracting journey. Currently the OCDS does not require collection of detailed information about subcontracts. Yet monitoring subcontracting arrangements is vital because subcontracts are key to delivery in many programmes, and are often the main way smaller organisations, including those from the voluntary sector, can access commissioning opportunities.

To ensure that this crucial data is collected, we would like to see either the OCDS extended to require publication of detailed information on subcontracts or the introduction of a standardised transparency clause for government contracts, requiring prime contractors to disclose information about subcontracting arrangements. The clause should cover access to information about which organisations are involved in frontline delivery, the funding they get, and their performance.

Looking ahead

Government plans to develop future NAP commitments through collaboration with the voluntary sector and citizens, providing a valuable opportunity for civil society to tell government what information it needs to build a full picture of public spending.

With greater data transparency, government and organisations will have the evidence they need to monitor and improve contracting and grant making, and enable better public services.

 

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Bethan was NCVO’s trainee public services officer.

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