Outsourcing: green light for contract transparency

30 Mar 15

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has committed to adopting a set of standardised transparency provisions in government outsourcing contracts. This is an important step in making these deals more open and accountable.

In November last year, the Institute for Government convened a taskforce to draft a set of standardised transparency provisions that would commit government and public service providers to publish information on contract performance to the public.

Last week, the institute set out its recommendations, based on the advice of this taskforce, in its Enhancing Transparency in Public Service Contracts report, which was published to coincide with Francis Maude commitment to trial and adopt a version of the recommended provisions.

Outsourcing has become increasingly central to the provision of public services in the UK. Private and voluntary sector organisations are now very large suppliers of government services, particularly in health, care of older people, employment and probation, and most government agencies now outsource some of their information technology and human resources support. In 2013, the National Audit Office estimated that across the public sector, £187bn is spent on goods and services from third parties.

Finding information about how well these services are performing and how much money providers are receiving is difficult. The government publishes very different amounts and types of information in relation to different services, which can often fail to provide essential information.

Maude’s plan to trial and adopt a set of standard transparency provisions marks an important step in reversing this state of affairs and will help make government contracts more open and accountable to the public.

Once adopted, suppliers of taxpayer-funded programmes will be required to publish information about contracted services – such as the fees charged to government and top-level performance indicators – and details of major subcontracting arrangements. The recommended provisions broadly set out the terms for deciding what information should be published as well as how, when, in what format, and by whom it should be published. It is thanks to the work done by the Open Data Institute (ODI) and others that the provisions also include an obligation to publish under an open licence, allowing organisations like the ODI and the institute to compile and compare the data released by government more readily.

Importantly, the provisions are intended to complement existing transparency measures already in use in government contracts including confidentiality and freedom of information clauses. Public authorities, of course, will still be obliged to fulfil their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. The difference is that these provisions enhance transparency through a proactive ‘push’ of information to the public, as opposed to a ‘pull’ or request for information that is characteristic of FoI requests. And – as highlighted by the Information Commissioner’s Office in its recent examination of transparency in outsourcing – it is important to have both.

This work forms part of a range of ongoing commitments and initiatives from government and civil society alike all geared towards the common aim of making government more open and transparent. Maude has championed a range of transparency and open government initiatives over the course of this parliament, to which he can now add contract transparency.

Of course this is just the beginning. By all indications increased transparency of contract performance will continue no matter what the outcome of May’s election. And there is still equally important work to do on making public sector performance more transparent too, as we note in our Whitehall Monitor annual report. The institute will continue to support government efforts to increase transparency and, of course, we will be monitoring how quickly government adopts these new transparency provisions across government contracts.

  • Chris Wajzer

    Chris Wajzer is a researcher at the Institute for Government and leads the institute’s work on transparency in government contracting. Prior to joining the IfG in June 2014, he spent four years as an adviser at the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where he worked on intergovernmental relations, national performance reporting, and urban planning reform.

Did you enjoy this article?