Cabinet Office unveils outsourcing transparency 'principles'

Cabinet Office says contracts for private firms running public services will include 'presumption in favour of disclosing information' to the public


By matt.foster

24 Mar 2015

The Cabinet Office has set out plans to try and improve the accountability of outsourcing firms by including a new transparency clause in public sector contracts.

In a new policy paper published this evening, the government said it would work with suppliers to craft a "mutually binding contractual clause on transparency", and promised that all public sector contracts would in future be drawn up with "a presumption in favour of disclosing information" to the public.

"The presumption in favour of disclosure should apply to the vast majority of commercial information about government contracts, with commercial confidentiality being the exception rather than the rule," the document states.

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Outsourcing firms will be required to provide the government's commercial body - the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) - with contract performance data "at regular, pre-agreed intervals over a contracts' life", according to the statement. 

The paper says government will then act as a "single point of contact" for public enquiries about the performance of privately delivered contracts, with the firms running those services in turn expected to provide CCS with data "within a reasonable time frame" and "with due consideration to the urgency of the question".

Minister for the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude hailed the new proposals, saying the use of open data would "sharpen accountability, support economic growth, and inform choice over public services".

However, the statement of principles does leave room for suppliers to oppose requests for information, saying contracts will include a "safety valve" for use in instances where suppliers feel requests for information from departments could push up costs.

Contractors who believe requests have been "unreasonable" or could represent "poor value" will therefore be able to raise their concerns with the CCS's Mystery Shopper Service, while the chief commercial officer will be called on to resolve disputes between suppliers and governments as a last resort.

The new principles also stop short of calls by some transparency campaigners, as well as MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, for private providers to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Last week, a report by the Information Commissioner's Office said government "should consider" designating private providers on "major" contracts as public authorities for the purposes of FOIA. But the ICO also said it did not think doing so would be "proportionate" for  "all or most service providers".

The Cabinet Office's proposed transparency clause draws on work led by the Institute for Government. The think tank published the conclusions of its own study into accountability in outsourcing on Monday.

IfG Senior Fellow Sir Ian Magee said that while outsourced services were now "central to public service delievry", there remained "little public information on how these contractors are performing".

"The transparency provisions agreed in this report will help make government contracts more open and accountable to the public," he added. "So while this publication represents significant progress, we are clear that this is only just the beginning.” 

Update, 25/3: An earlier version of this story included a quote by the Public and Commercial Services Union. Those comments were made in reference to separate pledges on outsourcing transparency made by contractor Sodexo yesterday, and did not refer to the broader Cabinet Office proposals.

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