Monthly Archives: December 2017

UK open contracting: good policy & maturing platform – it’s time to invest in implementation

[Summary: relecting on national open contracting progress in the UK]

Last week the Prime Minister issued a letter reminding central government departments of their transparency responsibilities and providing updated guidance on the information that should be disclosed and how. Amongst the guidance, is a revised note on “Publication of Central Government Tenders and Contracts” which provides a good snapshot of the current position for national government contracting (and which is also framed as useful guidance for Local Authorities considering their responsibilities under the local government transparency code).

The note covers:

  • The legislative requirement to publish most opportunities and awards over £10,000 via the Contracts Finder platform;
  • The policy committment of central government to see all tender documents, and contract texts attached to those notices on Contracts Finder;
  • Guidance on all the documents that go to make up the contract (and so that should be attached to Contracts Finder)
  • Re-iteration of the limitations to redaction of contract documents;
  • Recommendations on transparency clauses to include in new contracts, to have clear agreement with suppliers over information that will be public.

As contracting transparency policy goes: this is good stuff. We’re not yet at the stage in the UK of having the kind of integrated public financial management systems that give us transparency from planning to final payment, nor are their the kind of lock-in measures such as checking a contract has been published before any invoices against it are paid. But it does provide a clear foundation to build on.

The platform that backs up this policy, Contracts Finder, has also seen some good progress recently. With hundreds of tender and award notices posted every week, it continues to provide good structured data in the Open Contracting Data Standard through an open API. In the last few weeks, the data has also started to capture company registration numbers for suppliers – a really important key to linking up contracting and company ownership information, and to better understanding patterns of public sector contracting. The steady progress of Contracts Finder as a national platform (with a number of features also now added to help capture sub-contracting processes too) makes it absolutely key to monitoring and improving implementation of the policies described above.

There are still some challenges for the platform: data quality (and document availability) for many of the records in Contracts Finder relies upon the features of e-Procurement systems used by departments or local authorities to manage their contracting processes. If these systems don’t encourage inclusion of company identifiers, or contracting documents, we may struggle to reach full policy compliance and the best data quality. Ongoing improvements to the APIs for data entry, and to the tools for monitoring data quality, could certainly help here, as would increased engagement with e-procurement system vendors to get them to bake open contracting into their platforms, as Chris Smith has called for.

However, as we head in 2018, whilst we have to keep working on policy and platforms – the real focus needs to be on implementation: monitoring and motivating each department or public agency to be sure they are not only seeing transparency in procurement as a tick-box compliance excercise, but instead making sure it is embraced as a core part of accountable and open government. To date, Open Contracting in the UK has been the work of a relatively small network of dedicated officials, activists and entrepreneurs. If the vibe at OC Global last month was anything to go by, 2018 may well be the year it moves into the mainstream.

Disclosure/notes

I’m a member of the UK Open Contracting Steering Group, working under Commitment 5 of the UK OGP plan and I work for Open Data Services Co-op as one of the Open Contracting Data Standard helpdesk team.

On the journey: five reflections from #ocglobal17 (Open Contracting Global)

At it’s heart, open contracting is a simple idea: whenever public money and resources are at stake through a contracting processes, transparency and participation should be the norm.

Yet, as the Open Contracting Global Summit (#ocglobal17) in Amsterdam this week has demonstrated, it’s also an idea that brings together a very wide community. Reflecting on conversations from the week, I’ve tried here to capture five key reflections on where we are at, and where we might be heading:

(1) It’s not just procurement

Although the open contracting emphasis is often on the way governments buy goods and services, there are many other contracts where public resources are at stake: from licenses and concessions, to Public Private Partnership deals and grant agreements.

These each have different dynamics, and different approaches might be needed to open up each kind of process.

The Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) is primarily designed around procurement processes, although at OCGlobal we gave the first public preview of the OCDS for PPPs profile, that extends the OCDS data model to provide a structured way of recording in-depth disclosures for Public Private Partnership deals.

(2) It’s not just JSON

Thanks to Article 19, the corridoors at OCGlobal had been turned into a ‘gallery of redaction’. Copies of contracting documents obtained through FOI requests provided tantalising hints of government and private sector deals: yet with all the key facts blacked out. These stood as a reminder of how many times the public are kept in the dark over contracts

Neither documents, nor data, on their own will answer all the question citizens or companies might have about contracting. Not will they automatically spark the kinds of participation, scrutiny and engagement that are the essential complement of transparency.

Although publication of standardised data might be the most concrete manifestation of open contracting, it’s problematic to conflate transparency or open contracting with use of the OCDS JSON schema. Indeed, the 5-star model published as part of the guidance for OCDS 1.0 highlights that governments can taken their first steps towards open contracting data by publishing any contracting information on the web, stepping up to machine-readability and standarised data as capacity allows.

Any other approach risks making the perfect into the enemy of the good: preventing publication until data is perfect.

The challenge ahead is in designing and refining the incentive structures that make sure open contracting efforts do not stop at getting a few documents online, or some fields in a JSON dataset – but instead that over time they broadens and deepen both disclosure, and effective use of the information that has been made available.

(3) It’s an iterative journey

There’s a much refreshed implementation section on the Open Contracting website, curating a range of guidance and tools to help put open contracting ideas into practice. The framing of a linear ‘seven steps’ journey towards open contracting is replaced with a ‘hopscotch’ presentation of the steps involved: with interlocking cycles of development and use.

This feels much closer to the reality I’ve experienced supporting open contracting implementations, which involve a dance back and forward between a vision for disclosure, and the reality of getting data and documents published from legacy systems, transparency features added to systems that are in development, or policies and practice changed to support greater citizen engagement in the contracting process.

There was a lot of talk at OC Global about e-procurement systems as the ideal source of open contracting data: yet for many countries, effective e-procurement deployments are a long way off, and so it’s important to keep in mind different ways tools like OCDS can be used:

  • Based-on – OCDS can provide a guide for reviewing and reflecting on current levels of disclosure, and for turning unstructured information into data to analyse. This is the approach pioneered by projects like Budeshi, who started out transcribing documents to data to demonstrate the value that a more data-driven approach could have to procurement monitoring.

  • Bolt-on – OCDS can be used as the target format when exporting data from existing contracting data systems. These might be reporting systems that capture regular monitoring returns on the contracting process, or transactional systems through which procurement is run. Here, the process of mapping existing data to OCDS can often reveal data quality issues in the source systems – and with the right feedback loops, this can lead to not only data publication, but also changes to improve data in future.

  • Built-in – OCDS can be used to inform the design of new systems – providing common shared data models, and a community where extended modelling of data can be discussed. However, it’s important to remember that building new systems is not just about data structures – it’s also about user experience, and right now, the OCDS doesn’t address this.

To my mind, OCDS provide a structured framework that should support use in all these different ways. As we iterate on the standard itself, it’s important we don’t undermine this flexibility – but that instead we use it to establish common ground on which publishers and users can debate issues of data quality. With the standard, those debates should be actionable: but it’s not up the standard itself to settle them.

(4) Contracting is core: but it doesn’t start or end there

Contracting is just one of the government processes that affects how resources are allocated and used. Before contracting starts, budgets are often set, or wide-reaching procurement plans established. During contract implementation, payment processes kick-in. And for the private companies involved in public contracts, there are all sorts of interlocking processes of registration, financing and taxation.

From an architectural perspective it’s important for us to understand the boundaries of the open contracting process, and how it can link up with other processes. For example, whilst OCDS can capture budget information as part of a contracting process (e.g. the amount of budget allocated to that process), it starts stretching the data model to represent a budget process nested within a contracting process.

As one of the break-out groups looking at budget, contract and spend integration noted, the key to joining up data is not putting everything in the same dataset or system, but comes from establishing business processes that ensure common identifiers are used to join up the systems that manage parallel processes.

There’s a lot of work to do before we have easy interoperability between different parts of an overall [accountability architecture](ACSP LINK LINK LINK) – but the biggest issues are of data production and use, rather than of standards and schemas.

(5) It’s time to tidy our terminology

The open contracting community is broad, and, as I recently wrote over here, “the word ‘standard’ means different things to different people.”. So does contracting. And tender. And validation. And assessment. And so-on.

Following recent workshops in London and Argentina, the OCDS team have been thinking a lot about how we tighten up our use of key terms and concepts, establishing a set of draft translation principles and policies, and we’ve been reflecting more on how to also be clearer on ideas like data validity, quality and feedback.

But we also have to recognise that debates over language are laden with power dynamics: and specialist language can be used to impose or exclude. Open contracting should not be about dumbing down complex processes of contracting, but nor should it be able requiring every citizen to learn procurement-speak. Again, for OCDS and other tools designed to support open contracting, we have balancing act: creating boundary objects that help different communities meet in the middle.

The first step towards this is just working out how we’re using words at the moment: checking on current practice, before working out how we can improve.

Gratitude

Asides from sparking a wealth of learning, the other thing an event like #OCGlobal17 does is remind me just how fortunate I am to get to work with such a inspiring network of people: exploring challenging issues with a great collaborative spirit. Thanks all!

The reflections above are more or less fragmentary, and I’m looking forward to working with many of the folk in the picture below to see where the journey takes us next.