The latest Procurement Policy Note on transparency is a call to action for procurement professionals in the UK. Procurement Policy Note 13/15 – Increasing the Transparency of Contract Information to the Public – will take effect in September and contains important information pertinent to those publishing, and bidding for, public sector contracts.
It is firstly important to ground ourselves in some background on the transparency agenda. The transparency agenda is intended to make government more open. The Government’s objectives for transparency are to strengthen public accountability, to support public service improvement by generating more comparative data and increasing user choice, and to stimulate economic growth by helping third parties develop products and services based on public information. The Government announced a programme of information release in two open Prime Minister’s letters in May 2010 and July 2011, and made further commitments as part of the Autumn Statement in November 2011.
The Government set out the need for greater transparency across its operations to enable the public to hold public bodies and politicians to account. This includes commitments relating to public expenditure, intended to help achieve better value for money.
It was announced that all new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 were to be published on a single website, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge. Also, new items of central government spending over £25,000 were published online from November 2010. All new central government contracts were published in full from January 2011.
Transparency and accountability of public service delivery is key as it builds the public’s trust and confidence in public services, enables citizens to see how taxpayers’ money is being spent and enables the performance of public services to be independently scrutinised.
On 24 March 2015, the Government published a set of general transparency principles that require public procurers proactively to disclose contract and related information that may previously have been withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality. This new presumption in favour of disclosure of information requires procurers to set out, in advance of a contract award, the types of information to be disclosed to the public, and then to publish that information in an accessible format.
The Procurement Policy Note applies to all Central Government Departments, their Executive Agencies and Non Departmental Public Bodies. From 1 September 2015, all these public sector buyers are required to discuss additional transparency requirements with suppliers as early as possible in the procurement process. This is to be done in order to agree the types of information to be disclosed on contract award.
To do this public procurers should familiarise themselves with the types of information redacted on contracts historically or withheld under FOIA and use this as the basis of discussions with suppliers.
These types of information for disclosure might typically include: contract price and any incentivisation mechanisms; performance metrics and management of them; plans for management of underperformance and its financial impact; governance arrangements including through supply chains where significant contract value rests with subcontractors; resource plans; and service improvement plans.
Vital to the transparency agenda is ensuring that this information is available to and accessible by the public on the Transparency section of websites in gov.uk. It is equally important that the relevant information is updated during the life of contracts so it remains current, and that the information is not overly redacted. There will always be information where there are limitations on what can be disclosed, for instance if it falls within national security grounds, and on such occasions there will be no requirement for the information to be disclosed.
Openness and transparency can save money, strengthen people’s trust in government and encourage greater public participation in decision-making. This is particularly relevant to local government procurement as open and transparent local government helps meet local needs and demands. It encourages a meaningful approach to open data to design services around user needs and engage and empower citizens to shape their communities and services. It is also important to drive efficiencies and public service transformation and promote economic and social growth through the innovative use of data.
The UK Government is the most open and transparent in the world, according to global rankings produced by the World Wide Web Foundation looking at public access to official data.
Openness and transparency can save money, strengthen people’s trust in government and encourage greater public participation in decision-making. This is particularly relevant to central government procurement so that the public can hold public bodies and politicians to account for its use of public money. It should in turn promote greater efficiency in public sector procurement leading to better public services.
Nowhere is transparency more relevant than in health sector procurement. Here, transparency is vital to enable the public to hold public bodies and politicians to account in regards to health spend and services. Health procurement transparency can ensure that expenditure data is shared to identify savings opportunities. This is particularly important considering the ambition for the NHS to save £1.5 billion by 2016. It can also ensure that small enterprises are sighted on public sector business opportunities, both future procurement plans and current opportunities to tender for new contracts. Taken together, these measures will increase competition, encourage growth and greater innovation and lead to better value for money from the public purse.
The work of the Department for Education is to support schools to prepare well-rounded young people for success in adult life, and effective and efficient procurement is an essential part in this. Transparency in the procurement of goods and services in education is very important as it can improve accountability. It should also help in the drive to allocate funding more fairly and effectively throughout education spend.
As in local government procurement, increasing transparency in social housing to improve local asset management of high-value, vacant social housing properties is an important aspiration.
Seeking greater transparency and accountability in the way councils manage their social housing stock is a key measure of localism. This will allow local communities to hold local councils to account on how they are managing their stock to ensure they are making the best possible use of their social housing assets.