Government spending data released

29 11 2010

On 19 November the government published detailed spending data allowing the public to see for the first time how money is spent. This constitutes an enormous amount of data- some 157 spreadsheets containing every transaction by each one of 24 core departments detailing every item of spending over £25,000 for the last 6 months.

The release represents perhaps the greatest step for government accountability yet made. The idea is for the publication to release a raft of armchair auditors who will hold the government to account on its spending and flag up misdemeanors, as well as producing value-added and useful apps and information.

Maude, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, stated: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. This government should be held to account for every penny it spends and I believe that with the weight of public interest on their shoulders, greater transparency will drive departments to make the right decisions about how they spend taxpayer’s money.”

It has certainly revealed some interesting facts, most prominent of which is the governments struggle to wean itself off high-cost contracts with an elite few companies. For example, the top four private companies together account for £4628.3m of government spending (Capita £3352.4m, Telereal Trillium 569.5m, HP Enterprise 435.3m, Aspire 271.1m).

There are issues though. Despite efforts to ensure uniformity, including the production of a release handbook, the data is still in need of considerable cleanup. Each department has a different terminology for classifying its expenditures, meaning it is difficult to group similar costs across Government. The supplier VAT numbers have been excluded making it difficult to identify the same companies across datasets.

Moreover, the vast majority of spending was transactions between public sector bodies, such as grants to local authorities. As a result, it will remain difficult to see the true impact of public spending on the private sector until smaller public bodies’ spending data becomes available.

There’s also a lot excluded: the NHS, benefit payments, spending by quangos, information removed for “national security” and personally confidential reports, totaling about £80bn of an annual spend of £670bn.

Overall though this represents a considerable step in the governments accountability and transparency agenda. Already questions have been raised about how the government spends its cash, and a whole host of apps have been developed to help make sense of what has been published (spotlightonspend and wheredoesmymoneygo).

The government needs now to maintain this momentum and develop an impetus to improve the quality of what it publishes.

Sean Kirwan

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COI letter regarding the Government Transparency Agenda

22 10 2010

Dear Supplier

Government Transparency Agenda

In ‘The Coalition: our programme for Government’ the government set out the need for greater transparency across its operations so that the public could hold to account public bodies and politicians.

To help achieve greater transparency in how central government spends public funds and to help deliver better value for money, the Prime Minister has set out specific commitments in procurement and contracting:

  • All new central government tender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • All new central government contracts over £10,000 to be published in full from January 2011.

The commitment to publish contract documentation applies to the result of all competitive tenders from existing framework agreements which means that the majority of COI’s procurement activity is within the scope of this commitment. COI is awaiting further guidance as to whether the contracts will be published on COI’s website or on a single government website. Further information regarding which website will be used will be published on the COI website as soon as it is available.

Under the terms of this commitment, certain redactions may be required prior to publication in order to protect certain types of information which may be considered exempt from publication. Redactions of contractual text will be permitted in line with the exemptions set out by the Freedom of Information Act.

For new framework agreements, COI will include two new clauses covering our right to publish and redactions. However, as COI frameworks operate on a four-year cycle, this exercise will not be complete until 2012. Therefore, the decision has been taken to introduce the following two clauses in all existing framework agreement terms and conditions, effective from the date of this letter:

RIGHT TO PUBLISH

1) The parties acknowledge that; except for any information which is declared by COI to fall within one or more of the exceptions in the Redactions Clause; the content of any Contract is not Confidential Information. Notwithstanding any other clause of this Agreement, the Contractor hereby gives his consent for COI to publish a Contract in its entirety, including from time to time agreed changes, to the general public.

2) The Contractor shall assist and cooperate with COI to publish any Contract content.

 

REDACTIONS

COI may, at its sole discretion, redact information from the Contract prior to publishing for one or more of the following reasons:

  • national security;
  • personal data;
  • information protected by intellectual property law;
  • information which is not in the public interest to disclose ( under a Freedom of Information Act analysis)
    • third party confidential information;
    • IT security; or
    • prevention of fraud

 

These clauses are not considered contentious and should be acceptable, however, if you wish to discuss them or the wider transparency agenda, please feel free to contact me.

 

Yours faithfully

 

Bob Ager

Head of Procurement





Government response to comments on the Coalition Programme

2 08 2010

On Friday 30th July, the government published responses, by department, to the public opinions expressed on ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’ website. In the past three weeks, the website published over 9,500 comments from the public on the Coalition programme on subjects as wide-ranging as defence, civil liberties and banking. In a video posted to the Number 10 website, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, hailed the latest developments thus:

‘The response has been fantastic and I’m pleased to see people have really engaged with this process. I hope people will see that this is different, it’s a permanent change to the way we run government, and that it is worthwhile engaging in this kind of process in the future. It’s important for us in government to remember we don’t have all the answers.’

His comments were echoed by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for the Cabinet Office:

‘At last, government has realised that there are 60 million citizens who really do have ideas. Through processes like this, we can give real power to the people and make things open.’

In a statement on the Cabinet Office website, the government thanked those who chose to comment on the programme for government and reiterated its commitment to the use of open standards and transparency. Furthermore, the government hailed the opportunity for open source software to drive down procurement prices and avoid dependence on inefficient vendors. The government also announced that ‘Guidance for Procurers’ will be published in September 2010. The aim of this guidance is to ensure that new IT procurements for government offer the best value for money possible.

Charlotte Jee       (@charlottejee)





Which government datasets do you want to see released?

23 07 2010

In the latest development in the government transparency drive, today Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) called for the British public to identify which new government datasets they wish to see made public on data.gov.uk.

This decision was made in the light of a recent meeting of the Public Sector Transparency Board, tasked by the Prime Minister to ensure transparency is at the heart of the governments’ dealings.

As part of this the Transparency Board has identified some frequently requested datasets which include:

  • Land Registry
  • Companies House
  • Integrated Business Register
  • Transport Data include timetables, fare and real time running information
  • Weather information including observations and forecasts
  • Environment Agency data
  • Address register
  • Footpaths

Commenting on today’s developments, Francis Maude said:

“We promised a new approach to government – one that puts transparency at the very heart of everything we do. As part of our commitment to transparency this Government has already published a series of datasets which have never been available to the public before. But it’s not just a one way process: I want people to give their ideas on what datasets they want to see released and not just wait for us to publish.

“As the saying goes, information is power. By making datasets freely available people are more able to hold public bodies to account and challenge them. This is just the start of process which will only end when transparency and openness are an integral part of the way public bodies operate and serve their customers.”

The government has furthermore published procurement spending by English local authorities and the Department of Health for the first time, as an addition to the data made available in the Office of Government Commerce’s Public Sector Procurement Expenditure Survey. This is a survey of central government organisations’ expenditure and provides £86bn of operational data, on what over 130 Central Government Organisations plus English Local Authorities spend in over 120 common categories of procurement. The full data is available here.

Charlotte Jee                    (@charlottejee)





Brown Moves into the Post-Bureaucratic Age

22 03 2010

Gordon Brown’s announcement this morning (essentially a response to the recent launch of the Conservative’s Tech Manifesto) will raise few eyebrows. All the usual stuff about “Britain to be the world leader in the digital economy” was interspersed with some new ideas, and a new tone about how Labour conceives of technology’s role in government and the public sector. I have set out below how the parties’ approaches compare.

Government Data

The Conservatives have committed to “create a powerful new ‘Right to Government Data’, enabling the public to request – and receive – government datasets.” They explicitly included “the monthly online publication of local crime data on a street-by-street basis, education and health performance data and detailed information about all of DFID’s projects and spending programmes including the results of impact evaluations.”

In a move surely prompted by Liam Maxwell’s successful efforts in Windsor and Maidenhead council, they also promised to “publish online the energy consumption of all buildings in Whitehall.”

Gordon Brown spoke of “opening up data and using the power of digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government”; “in the autumn the Government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.” This will be run by the National Archives, and presided over by a new Open Data Board.

Brown did not go as far as to call for a ‘Freedom of Data Act’, but he did say that “There will be an expectation that departments will release each of these data sets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.”

Brown also announced £30m for the creation of a new institute of ‘Web Science’, based out of the University of Southampton ( http://webscience.ecs.soton.ac.uk/dtc ), and headed up by Brown’s impressive open data team, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Britain’s Broadband Infrastructure

The Conservatives have pledged to “be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100 mbps broadband across most of the population.” Their solution is to “unleash private sector investment” by “opening up network infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition”. If this approach fails, they will “consider” using some of the BBC licence fee dedicated to digital switchover. The Conservatives presented this as part of a broader modernization of ‘networks’, including high-speed rail and electricity.

Labour gave a different pledge: “to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home.” Mr Brown tasked Martha Lane Fox (Digital Inclusion Champion) to establish a new “digital public services unit” in the cabinet office. The theme of Brown’s speech tied in with the theme of ‘digital inclusion’: “21% of UK adults have never accessed the internet. That’s over a fifth trapped in a second tier of citizenship.” These four million people are also among the heaviest users of public services, and PWC have estimated that the government can save £900m per year just by bringing these people online.

Brown (nearly) jumped on the bandwagon in calling internet access a human right, but settled for “a fundamental freedom in the modern world”, and “the electricity of the digital age”. It was on these grounds that he argued that we cannot support a broadband rollout model driven by “profitability alone”, as he argues the Tories will.

Brown also pushed the ‘digital divide’ agenda hard – a phrase which used to be associated with the difference between digitally-developed and undeveloped countries. His 50p phone line tax is, he claims, a very small price to pay for a universal network.

Transparency and Cost Savings

The Conservative pledge is concrete: “we will publish online, and in an open and standardised format, every item of central government and Quango expenditure over £25,000. In addition, from 1 January 2011, a Conservative government will publish government contracts for goods and services worth over £25,000 in full, including all performance indicators, break clauses and penalty measures.”

In a smart move to placate the Eurosceptic elements in the party, Jeremy Hunt also promised to “increase the accountability of EU spending by publishing online details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds.”

Labour claim they can find £20 billion of savings, and (in a line which echoes the Tories ‘public consultation phase’) intend “to harness new technology to deliver a major step forward in giving the public a greater influence over the Whitehall policy-making process.” In another Tory echo, Brown let slip that Darling will be announcing a 20% cut in the senior civil service paybill in Wednesday’s budget.

Brown also claimed that the new digital economy will create more than 250,000 skilled jobs by 2020.

Public Services

The Conservatives, to their detriment, have not yet tackled the impact of technology, the digital economy, or the post-bureaucratic age on public services as explicitly as Labour.

Labour presented a new service: Mygov – which aims to make “interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping”. In a power-shift which the Tories may see as a direct assault on their policy territory, Brown announced: “rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs.”

Brown also had some rhetoric which could have come from the Cameron PBA playbook: “an enormous shift from what many have in the past seen as a too paternalistic, closed Whitehall, to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalize, shape, and ultimately control their services.” Other than overkill from the number of buzzwords he can include in a single sentence, the public may questions whether public services are too ‘paternalistic’ and ‘closed’ now, rather than at some elusive point ‘in the past’.

Moving into ‘power shift’ areas which David Cameron has seen as his own is a risky strategy for Brown; it sits well with the public and presents a positive message in a campaign about cuts. However, at this point Brown is very much the follower.

What the Parties Left Out:

Neither party tackled the controversial Digital Economy Bill. It merited one small paragraph in the Tories’ Tech Manifesto, and enjoyed a similarly low profile in Brown’s speech. It is a thorny issue for the leaders, but one which they must address if they are to be taken seriously on these issues.

Tories might point out that Mr Brown included nothing on legislating to create a Right to Government Data; nothing on a level playing field for open source software; nothing on spending transparency; and nothing at all on ending the track record of Labour IT project failures and waste. One may also question Brown’s own commitment to transparency and handing away power.

A more generous critic might view Brown’s speech as a big step in embracing the opportunities of the post-bureaucratic age. The link between universal broadband and ‘not leaving anyone behind’ is a strong message (which perhaps the Tories should have promoted), and will tie in with Labour’s presentation of the Tories as the party of the ‘haves’. The ‘Domesday Book’ argument for opening government data is slightly misguided (William the Conqueror did it, in part, to tax the people as much as he could), but Labour’s late entry to the PBA party may have surprised many in its boldness and scope.

By Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)





Government Procurement Plans

11 01 2010

Today, Liam Byrne,Secretary to the Treasury,  has announced an action plan setting out how the Government will harness the £220 billion spent by the public on third party goods and services to support growth and economic recovery.

The (catchy) Policy Through Procurement Action Plan

Published by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the 2009 Plan (announced at the Pre-Budget Review) emphasises three principles:

  • Supporting small and medium-sized enterprises;
  • Encouraging apprenticeships, training and youth employment;
  • Reducing carbon emissions.

95% of contracts are won by UK businesses.

The Rub

This seems a sensible move to ensure that UK government spend supports those hardest hit by the recession: small business and people without skills or qualifications. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In order to supply the government, a company must be registered on an approved supplier list. These vary from sector to sector. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a long, laborious process, which contains arbitrary limits to determine which contracts a supplier can bid for.

The Plan expects to help deliver its objectives by encouraging suppliers to sign up to its voluntary Supplier Charter, but doesn’t make it any easier to become a supplier! A couple of smart PR moves to meet the objectives – a few apprentices and a Toyota Prius – and government procurement will continue much as before.

There is an Access to All programme, which contains the wonderfully encouraging line:

“The Government’s policy on SMEs is to encourage and support these organisations to compete for public sector contracts where this is consistent with value for money policy the UK regulations, EU Treaty principles and EU procurement directives.”

So, small business is welcome on the rare occasions that it treads on literally no one else’s feet?

There is an even more patronising document covered in high-resolution pictures of fish, presumably as some small-fish-big-pond metaphor, which contains some innovative advice for public procurement departments:

“Use your website (see page 10). It is an ideal way of making information available at low cost and
consider including a ‘Selling to…’ guide giving potential suppliers the information they need to
bid effectively.”

With this kind of cutting-edge advice, how can government fail to light the fire of innovation?





Should civil servants publish their timesheets online?

7 01 2010

Given the civil service are paid for by the taxpayer, is it unreasonable that they should have to account for how they spend their time?

There arguments in favour of this radical proposal are strong. If timesheets were published anonymously by depatment, members of the public (and the politicians who represent them) would be able to judge for themselves whether their money was being well spent, and whether civil servants were spending their time productively.

The problems:

1. Some aspects of civil servants work is necessarily secret (foreign office, military), and there would be an unacceptable risk to the personal security of the public.

2. Commercial aspects of civil service procurement rely on sealed bids, private consultation, and other practices that would result in less value for money for the taxpayer if they were displayed openly.

3. A culture of witch-hunting would emerge and civil service morale would sink lower than it is already, rendering the service even less efficient.

The responses:

1. Obviously some areas of government work should remain absolutely secret, but this does not mean that all government employees have a presumed right to privacy from their employers (the public). Public records should not be made available.

2. Again, these practices should remain, but civil servants should be held accountable for their commercial decisions, just as any procurement officer in the private sector would. Government contracts should not be a ‘soft option’, available only to large, conservative businesses. Opening-up the procedures of procurement would provide numerous opportunities for innovative businesses to enter the currently restricted marketplace.

3. The publishing of timesheets and opening-up of working practices would punish the bad, but also recognise the good work done by many employees of the civil service. It is absurd that 1 in 5 members of the UK working population cannot receive open credit for their hard work. The public should be able to judge which departments, and even which specific managers, are managing their resources effectively and performing to the highest standards.

Let us know your thoughts.

Ali Unwin