Cabinet Office steps up transparency around government contracts

New dashboard and register of deals among steps taken
Alex Chisholm

The Cabinet Office is developing a “fully integrated” register of departmental contracts as part of an effort to increase transparency, following increased scrutiny of the publication of government deals during the pandemic.

The department is aiming to have the new system up and running by the end of the year, its permanent secretary, Alex Chisholm, told the Public Accounts Committee.

The project is being developed after a review of Cabinet Office procurement by Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Nigel Boardman last year. The review recommended that the department create a searchable centralised contracts register, which records the individual budget holder for each contract as well as the name and contact details for the business contract owner.

The register is one of several steps the Cabinet Office is taking to ensure departments publish details of contracts they award promptly, Chisholm told PAC in a letter last month.

He was following up on a series of questions the MPs asked when he gave evidence to the committee earlier in June about why some departments had been slow to make deals they had signed over the last 18 months public, and what steps were being taken to improve transparency.

During the evidence session, committee member Gareth Bacon said: “It has been well trailed that many contracts that the government awarded over the course of the pandemic were quite slow in finding their way into the public realm.” He asked how the government could improve, and how it could become more transparent about its contracts while civil servants are under considerable time pressures, as they were during the pandemic.

“I would like to reassure the committee that we are working to improve the prompt publication of contract data across government departments,” Chisholm’s letter, which was published on Friday, read.

The perm sec, who is also chief operating officer for the civil service, said the Cabinet Office had also created a dashboard that is updated daily and monitors how long departments are taking to publish each contract they award.

“Reports from this dashboard are distributed to departments on a monthly basis to ensure visibility at a senior level,” he said.

He also confirmed that the Cabinet Office had published details of all the contracts it had awarded under Regulation 32 – which allows departments to award contracts without the usual tender process in times of emergency – during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, he added that because each department is responsible for publishing details of the deals it signs, he could provide only “limited” details about contracts signed elsewhere in government that had yet to be made public.

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