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Government acts on contract transparency

The Government has acted on contract transparency, placing a new transparency clause within the updated Model Services Contract – the blueprint used throughout government for major contracts with public sector buyers. This follows the Government’s commitment in March 2015 to trial and adopt the transparency provisions developed by the Institute. Jo Casebourne explains.

The updated Model Services Contract, published at the end of May, contains a new transparency clause, to enable the publishing of public service contracts and of contract performance data. This matters because we have continued to see a number of high-profile problems that have brought into question the Government’s ability to manage public service contracts, as well as undermined public confidence in outsourced service provision.

On top of the Serco and G4S tagging scandal, and the collapse of Kid’s Company, we’ve seen recent examples of schools being closed due to botched construction by private contractors and new providers of non-emergency ambulance services forcing patients to miss appointments. All these contracts provided at best a patchy indication of how much money providers received, and it was very difficult to find out exactly who received how much for what, or how well providers were performing. There were also problems with government itself, with questions being asked as to whether the contracts were being managed properly.

The transparency clause will improve the accountability of public service providers to government and to the public, and ensure that the public can see that the Government is properly managing performance. The clause commits the Government to publishing transparency information in a format that assists the general public in understanding the data being published so that they obtain a fair view on performance. This will help to ensure that we see less taxpayer money wasted, and better management of public service markets by government.

The clause is based on recommendations we set out in March last year for enhancing transparency in public service contracts. These were based on a taskforce we convened, comprising representatives from business, including G4S, Atos, Mitie, HP, and government, as well as key advisory bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, the National Audit Office, NCVO and the Open Data Institute. The then-Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, committed to trial and adopt a version of these provisions as part of the Government’s broader transparency commitments, under the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan  and its own principles to enhance transparency.

It has taken quite some time for the Government to take the next tangible step – committing at the end of May to a version of the transparency clause within the Model Services Contract. Of course, after that, the key will be ensuring that the Model Services Contract that the clause sits within, intended for business services contracts with a total contract value greater than £10m, is used by departments across Whitehall.

The Government is highly committed to transparency. The Prime Minister recently highlighted its importance in public service provision. Speaking about reform in prison services, he stressed that a key rule of reform was to ‘hold these providers and professionals to account with real transparency over outcomes’. And Matt Hancock, the current Cabinet Office minister, has emerged as a strong champion of transparency, most recently highlighting the importance of transparency at the Anti-Corruption Summit in London in May.

We look forward to seeing the Government's actions lead to real change, seeing how the clause is used and whether the information it produces is useful.

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