Balancing the Demands for Transparency and Performance in Public Sector Contracting
- Contract Management
- Public Sector
- Supplier Management
One of the most welcome and well thought-through sections of the UK Government Green Paper, “Transforming Public Procurement” is undoubtedly Chapter 6, with its discussion of open and transparent contracting. Open contracting and transparency in public procurement save money and broaden competition and eliminate corruption.
The United Kingdom has already made progress in this direction, including its early commitment to the Open Contracting Data Standard, enabling disclosure of contract data, but as the Green Paper concedes, “the landscape remains fragmented, with missed opportunities to manage spend, bring performance tension to contract management and improve outcomes.” Data in these systems is not easily accessible or machine-readable. Moreover, lack of consistency is a source of inefficiency, with suppliers having to provide basically similar information on multiple platforms.
“Citizens and suppliers are locked out of the data loop post-award and there is limited transparency of what takes place thereafter.”
The UK is responding to an international movement that is gathering momentum, spearheaded by the Open Government Partnership, which now has 78 national members, including the UK, and participants from across civil society. The Green Paper also recognises the progress that has already been made abroad, notably in Ukraine and the Republic of Korea. France has also opened up data on public procurement contracting.
As with most policy issues, “the devil is in the detail” and the Green Paper examines some of the complex issues that arise when seeking to harmonise any new proposals on contract transparency with exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the protection of privacy under the Data Protection Act (DPA).
That aside, the proposal is to require all contracting authorities to “publish procurement and contracting data throughout the commercial lifecycle in a format compliant with the OCDS”. All relevant data, the paper continues, will need to be held in OCDS-compatible, open, non-proprietary reusable formats.
All of this goes considerably further than simply avoiding corrupt or dishonest conduct. It is clear that the winds of change are blowing through the public sector, and the very high standards of ethical behaviour that uphold the values of public service and ensure impartiality, accountability and transparency that are already widely practiced will, in future, be set in a statutory framework
But what does this mean for public sector procurement professionals in the here and now? Formal recommendations for legislation will come in a future white paper; however, a “wait and see” approach will mean missed opportunities and lost time. Contract managers and supplier relationship management officers in government departments and local authorities can already implement and adhere to standards that go beyond the current regulatory framework. They can already issue guidelines based on the indicative recommendations in the Green Paper – these can serve as an ongoing reference at all points of a tender, supplier management, contract management and payment processes.
Most importantly, authorities should be working to ensure that their data and systems are fully digital and fit for purpose. This is an area where JAGGAER has much to offer, based on a variety of projects not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. For example, a couple of years ago Scottish Councils in Ayrshire made a strategic decision to implement JAGGAER’s contract lifecycle management software across their whole contract portfolio. This incorporated a formal and standardised document management structure to ensure proven best-practice contract management controls to automate and streamline contracting processes, including the ability to generate and capture contractual information and legal agreements. These are now embedded into the system for all contracts. The project also demonstrated how local authorities can cooperate on such projects, sharing costs as well as finding a coherent way forward. Similarly, the project with Westminster City Council, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea created a Tri-Borough system for the management of contracts ensuring supplier data was available and contracts were awarded to the most economically advantageous suppler.
What is crucially important is that, while meeting the specific needs of the public sector such as open access to contract data and a complaints register, the central technology platform that is implemented leverages the experience and best practices of the private sector. To meet the government’s objectives the solution will need to be flexible and scalable to manage the vast amounts of supplier and contract data, and above all it must be easy to use for suppliers as well as buyers, for example by allowing rapid and unbureaucratic onboarding. It should also give government departments and agencies the ability to monitor contract performance throughout the lifecycle. JLL and Unilever have already travelled a fair distance on this journey and have very robust systems for contract and supplier management, together with advanced analytics for contract performance management, in place.