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Who knew contracts could be so interesting?

Written by Steve Goodrich on Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Steve Goodrich takes a comparative look at Slovakian open governance and open governance here in the UK, finding that the UK still has some work to do in order to come good on its 2013 OGP commitments to open contracting.


 

Ever looked at a government contract before? Didn’t think so.

For most of us the thought of browsing through dense legal texts is as appealing as having Tabasco sauce rubbed in your eyes. However, if you were so inclined, for example, you wanted to find out how much longer your local hospital has to pay for on its PFI contract, you might face a second problem: UK public sector contracts aren’t currently systematically published online.

Despite the Prime Minister committing the Government to open contracting back in 2010 and the UK Government including it in the 2013 Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan there appears to been slow progress on subjecting public sector contracts to wider scrutiny. The last stock-take of the Government’s OGP commitments showed that the UK Government was behind on a number of key actions to implement open contracting across the public sector and recent research suggests that the details of a number of major projects are still not available.

Who publishes this stuff?

Despite the UK Government’s lack of progress it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable to ask “who actually publishes these things, anyway?” Well, back in 2011, when the UK Government committed to publish all new contracts and tenders over £10,000 in value, the Slovakian Government decided to publish more or less everything. Faced by mass protests over corruption in the public sector their government committed to publishing almost all public sector contracts online (there are some exemptions). You can now browse through the details of a significant amount of government resources-resources-business via the country’s online portal (so long as you can read Slovak of course).

Who actually reads these things?

According to research by Transparency International Slovakia, at least 11% of the Slovakian adult population have looked at a government contract since they were first published back in 2011. That’s around 480000 people. Although some of these spent more time than others browsing through the documents in-depth, this is undeniably an astounding amount of people taking a vague interest in government procurement.

Why does this matter?

Before Slovakia opened-up its contracts there was widespread mistrust in public institutions and officials. According to Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures impressions of public sector corruption, Slovakia was ranked 66th out of 183 countries in 2011. By 2014 it had jumped 12 places – a record achievement – to 54th which must in some part be due to the Government’s commitment to opening-up public contracts to greater scrutiny.

Since the contracts were published, there also seems to have been a spike in media reports on government tenders. This suggests there is greater scrutiny of public spending, which should hopefully translate into less wasted expenditure.

Elsewhere, proponents of open contracting have espoused other benefits such as greater commitment by both parties to following the agreement and protecting against malign private interests. Similar projects in Georgia have also turned clunky bureaucracies into efficient data-savvy administrations. In short, there are quite a few reasons why more openness in public sector procurement is a good thing.

Despite these benefits, opponents cite a number of downsides, including the administrative costs of publishing contracts online and issues surrounding commercially sensitive information. However, TI Slovakia’s research suggests the former is minimal – and presumably preferable to rooting around through paper mountains every time a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is received about a contract – whilst the latter already has to be disclosed under the FOI Act except in particular circumstances.

What should be done?

The UK Government still has some time to come good on its 2013 OGP commitments to open contracting but it has got its work cut-out to do so. Whilst it’s at it, it should also review how it publishes a lot of its current data. Research by Transparency International UK has found that although open data can be used to help corruption, the current quality and provision of these datasets in the UK needs improving. The Government’s commitment to transparency seems to be there, but turning the rhetoric of openness into reality will still take a bit more work.

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Read 5838 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 November 2015 10:07
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Steve Goodrich

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Senior Researcher Officer .

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