UK Government spend data – does it really tell us anything?

As the Guardian says, publication of all Whitehall spend over £25K "could be remembered as a leap forward in the transparency of government – or a masochistic folly".

It is likely to be applauded by most taxpayers, if not by senior civil servants or procurement folk in Government, facing yet another level of scrutiny (beyond the National Audit Office, Private Eye, lawyers acting for unhappy bidders, the EU....)  There is a question here around why anyone would want to go into public sector procurement given the current mood but we'll come back to that another day.

The problem with the data at the moment is that you really can't establish very much about the underlying value for money. Let's take a random (!) example; from the transparency data, £32 538.22 spent by Cabinet Office in July, with Procurement Excellence* on "MRPG Consultants Spend."

So was this good value for the taxpayer?  The published data does not allow you to get anywhere near answering that question. All we know is the total spent, with whom, and a broad 'spend category' - not enough to draw any conclusions.

What else would we need to know to establishalue for moeny? These would be the key questions that might help us tell whether this was a good use of £32K of taxpayers' money.

  • What exactly did the work involve?  MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group (public domain knowledge) but that's about all you can glean from the information provided.
  • What were the outputs / deliverables and were they achieved?
  • As this was 'consultancy', how many people were involved and was it day rate / fixed price / something else and what was the day rate (if relevant)?
  • What was the breakdown of that (particularly if the consultant was a sub-contractor) - how much 'agency margin' was in that price?
  • Was the work competed?  If so, how?

You would need the answer to all of these questions to make a real assessment of value for money in the way that an analytical procurement / finance person, or indeed the National  Audit Office, would look at it.  So if you asked - under Freedom of Information perhaps - for this, how much would you get back?

Here, you might find that the exact nature of the work would be classed as confidential if the major project related to defence or security in some way;  details of the specific consultant  may well be classed as confidential (personal data being excluded from FOI scope);  the day rate may well be classed as commercially confidential under FOI and the recent OGC transparency guidance (see here).  I expect that you might find out what the competitive process was, and perhaps a bit more about the scope of the work. But that might actually be about it.

So I can see the publication of the data leading to a lot of FOI requests.  I can see many of those coming back with what will be (to the requester) unsatisfactory answers.  Will that in time settle down as we accept that what we are getting is at least a step in the right direction?  Or will it lead to greater frustration about Government spending, more cynicism, a stronger anti-state sentiment amongst the electorate, and increasingly beleaguered civil servants?

Time as always will tell.

(* This is my consulting firm.  The contract in question provided superb value for money, and I am happy to disclose that in terms of our 'corporate' margin we only aim to break even when we provide associates under this contract.  I'll talk to anyone who wants to know more privately - within the constraints of our confidentiality agreements with Government of course !)

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