Francis Maude calls on small firms to drive openness in government contracts

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has urged small businesses to ‘demand’ that the government contracting process is made more open and transparent.

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Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has urged small businesses to ‘demand’ that the government contracting process is made more open and transparent.

According to Maude, the government has only just started to make contracting more open, and that it needed the pressure from different organisations and groups to keep going.

“One is the small business arena, who get frozen out of a lot of government contracting. It’s just too difficult. They should be being very demanding.

“As a legislator, as a member of parliament, you have a lot of exposure to small businesses, because they are local, they vote. They should use that visibility and audibility to make the case,” Maude said in a panel discussion on ‘open contracting’ at the Open Goverment Partnership’s (OGP) Summit in London today

Maude believes that opening up the government’s procurement process will enable more competitive businesses, which may be excluded due to the complexities and the cost of the process, to bid for public work. Initiatives that the government has carried out in this area include publishing online all public sector contracts over £10,000.

“Like every government, we face twin challenges. We don’t have a lot of money, we have a massive budget deficit and the citizen’s expectations of government services are rising. That means when we procure, commission services, systems or programmes from business, we absolutely need to get the best possible value, and the way that procurement was being done in Britain, frankly excluded some of the most competitive bidders that there were,” said Maude.

Fear of transparency

According to the minister, people in government are put off the idea of being transparent because they feel they are giving ammunition to competitors and they are scared of opening themselves up to criticism.

“Earlier this year, we decided to publish the first reports of our Major Projects Authority, two hundred or so of them, and for most of them we published the rankings. This was very uncomfortable and we knew that we were giving a great story to the media,” said Maude.

“We just have to take a deep breath and go through that. The truth is, once you start being routinely transparent, a lot of the data you put out is really boring and it becomes routine. The value comes from the exploitation, the mining, the analytics, which others will do.”

Data mining and analytics

For example, value could come from matching up data in the contracting process with other data sources, such as the publicly accessible central registry of information on beneficial ownership that the government announced today. The registry will contain information about who ultimately owns and controls UK companies.

“There’s no doubt whatsoever [about] opening up this whole territory and allowing others to mine that data, because it’s a hugely rich source, and to provide much greater visibility and genuine intelligence of what’s going on,” said Maude.

Fellow panellist Beth Noveck, who led President Obama’s open government initiative as the US’s deputy CTO for open government, and founder of The GovLab, added: “There are new opportunities when we can have open contracts as open data that are computable. When there are 50 contracts with the same entity, we can begin to have red flags that go up, mashing data to show that the 50 different entities are all the same company.

“In every business in industry, CEOs are using analytics to see how better they can do. Open contracting can help governments to do better in what they do.”

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