We interviewed Hera Hussain, of the Open Contracting Partnership to find out why open contracting benefits both public sector buyers and the companies who bid for their contracts.
Please tell me a little about your experience and the work of the Open Contracting Partnership.
I used to work at Open Corporates where I was working on open company data and now I’m working at Open Contracting which is about transparency in public procurement. I’ve been here since August. It’s really exciting because even when I was at Open Corporates I was part of the open contracting community, I was very inspired by the stories of success from everywhere from Ukraine to Nigeria. Right now, I’m working on global advocacy and supporting our partners on the ground who are pushing for more commitments from their governments on adopting open contracting and the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) as well as working on including more diverse actors in our community. That’s basically my remit at Open Contracting and I’m specifically working on the UK which is very exciting because I get to work with Open Opps and Spend Network.
What is open contracting?
Open contracting is the idea that public contracts and public contracting that use public finance should be done in the open because it leads to better governance, better deals for governments, citizens and businesses, and creates more integrity in the business environment. Public procurement is the number one risk when it comes to corruption in government, so doing public procurement in the open also helps to identify where things go wrong and to hold people to account.
We have a data standard, the OCDS, which is a world-recognised open data schema which allows governments to collect and publish data across their entire public procurement chain, all the way through from planning to implementation and monitoring. About 30 governments from around the world have committed to implementing open contracting. We work with them to make it happen and help civil society and business.
How does it benefit companies?
Businesses, especially small businesses, can find it quite daunting doing business with government. It’s hard to compete with the incumbent when there’s not enough information so you’re not able to spot opportunities for yourself. Having this data in the open makes it easier for businesses to do that and also to act as watchdog, if there’s a competitor who keeps getting government contracts they’re able to speak out about that.
Ukraine is an interesting example. They noticed that after implementing OCDS on their Prozorro platform that supplier diversity increased and that perception of corruption in public procurement almost halved. That’s a pretty big indicator of the benefits both for governments and businesses.
In Colombia, through our project there with the city of Bogota, they found they were able to bust a price fixing scandal and that dramatically expanded the number of businesses who were providing meals to schoolchildren. That is a concrete benefit of the government being able to spot price fixing through open contracting and increasing supplier diversity.
What effect has it had in the UK?
The UK has a lot of commitments on transparency including open contracting, so we’ve been working with the Crown Commercial Service who look after Contracts Finder. They’ve got some really ambitious plans which include tracking subcontracting which would be one of the first examples in the open contracting space of doing that. The UK also has a commitment to spend £1 in every £3 with so businesses, so they’re beginning to put into place measures and data fields to start collecting this data and see how many small businesses are actually doing business with government and who are those people that are doing it. They are currently implementing OCDS and they have been making progress.
My work is also going to involve looking into the data that is already out there that the Contracts Finder team already publishes to see how that can inform other public policies because investigative journalists and people concerned with the NHS, are interested in this. There’s a vast amount of interest in the UK. Interest into how contracting is done, and there’s a feeling that it’s not as efficient or as transparent as it should be. That’s really the bulk of my work.
What’s the ideal scenario for open contracting in the UK?
Speaking personally, I think what would be great is if all central governments were not using a proprietary procurement solution and if they were using one procurement solution which was interoperable with all the other registers, collecting and publishing data and open data in a structured format following OCDS, and that this was also being followed by the councils because there is a lot of discrepancy when it comes to implementing open contracting at council level. I would include the NHS in it, which at the moment doesn’t publish to Contracts Finder, and I would also include all other public bodies from fire stations to universities. University public procurement is not covered and neither are Clinical Commissioning Groups in the world of health, so there are a lot of gaps in the data. I would be looking at getting all of that, using a single system outputting data in OCDS format.
I’d want the government to actively be looking for problems in the data, not just gaps but looking for where there might be inefficiencies and where there might be signs of corruption or collusion. I would be looking at all of that.
Is OCDS set in stone or is it changing over time?
It’s definitely iterative in that there’s a whole OCDS community which has people from Latin America through to Asia, we have a very diverse technical community that’s interested and policy makers are also interested in further iterations for open contracting. As for further iterations, we’ve been working with 30 countries who all have separate challenges. We’ve been doing a lot of research into the wider OCDS and how on the next iteration which will probably be in the next two years, but also minor changes which we’ll roll out much quicker.
A person from our community is developing an anthology to translate the different procurement terms that are found in the OCDS so that that conversation is easier. One of my colleagues has done research on use cases, if you’re a government and spotting corruption isn’t your number one priority but increasing competition is, then what are the different fields in OCDS that they should definitely be implementing. So out of the larger set of fields they should have, what are the most important ones? Research like this is going to be used to determine how countries work with open contracting data.
What is OCP working on at the moment that you’d like to share?
We’ll be commissioning research on who’s contracting with the government, so how many women-run or small businesses are government contractors? We’re also looking at how open contracting could work on a local level. We’re scoping to see if our data standard could be implemented in Manchester, for example.
Do you have any upcoming events planned?
We’ll be running a couple of events this quarter, with our community including Open Opps. We’ll be looking at data hacks, doing data dives on the dataset itself and identifying gaps and stories.