Cabinet Office savings data – Minister can announce it, we can’t see it (yet)

Francis Maude claimed in February that the government procurement initiatives driven by the UK's  Cabinet Office would save the taxpayer £5 Billion in 2011/12, apparently on top of the £3.75 B in 2010/11.

As you might expect, we wanted to know more. For instance, is this really additional savings to the previous year – and how do you define “additional”?  All good procurement people know there are a multitude of ways to fiddle – sorry, I mean record and report - your savings. Having said that, we’ve been impressed up to now by Cabinet Office process in terms of recording savings – better than anything Government has done before.

So we asked a Freedom of Information question about the £5 Billion, and threw in a question about the SME spend figures for 2010/11, which strangely were not published when those for 2009/10 and 11/12 (year to date) were. And this is what we were told.

2. It is our intention to publish after the year end:

  • • detailed breakouts of the full year figures;
  • • baseline.

3. There is already in the public domain the efficiency landscape review that sets out our conversations early last year with the National Audit Office on these methods.

4. We are therefore refusing this information request on the basis of the exemption in section 22 that, at the time of your request, there was a firm intention to publish the requested information. The exemption in section 22 engages the public interest test. … etc.

The same answer was given for the SME question.

I don’t have a major problem with the argument for not giving us the detail now because it's on the way, as long as we don’t have to wait too long. But we don’t know yet when the supporting evidence is going to be published, and I have mixed feelings about the whole policy that says a Minister can make a claim without any need to back it up, using the excuse “we’ll tell you more in our own good time”.  Slipping out the data months later means it is less likely to be checked against the Ministerial claims of course.

It also suggests that such announcements are driven more by the political communications “grid” than a real need for openness. If you’re not ready to / can’t make the data properly available for publication, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for Minsters to use it for political advantage. You can imagine some SPAD (Minister’s special adviser) saying,

“We need a good news story next Thursday – I know, we’ll get Maude to say something about efficiency savings. I’m sure he can cobble together some impressive sounding numbers”.

We’re not suggesting necessarily this is what happened here, but that’s certainly one uncharitable explanation. Taking this with the doubts we have about the reporting of spend with small business (SMEs), such as the dodgy Ministry of Justice data and the MOD’s uncertainty around their numbers, we’re working hard not to start getting cynical about Cabinet Office claims on procurement, particularly (as we said earlier) they’ve had a pretty good record to date. So let’s hope the 2011/12 data is out soon.

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  1. Final Furlong:

    I like it best when you’re at your most cynical, Peter.

    The data (on spend and SMEs) ping-pongs between complete fabrication and complete bollocks. (As you know.)

    Do you not recall the first report by Cabinet Office, specifically on SMEs?: “Making Government Business More Accessible to SMEs – One Year On. Progress report on enabling more SMEs to tender for government procurements” (March 2012)

    Any eagle-eye would have spotted this fact amongst the fiction (extracted for ease of reference):….

    “Taking a broader view of indirect spend, we know that a number of our large suppliers pass on spend to SMEs as subcontractors within their supply chains. We recently carried out a survey across 50 of the largest suppliers to Government to gather sample data of their spend with SMEs. These 50 suppliers were responsible for around 35% of Central Government’s spend in 2010/11. We have had full responses from 27 suppliers which suggested that, between them, they passed approximately 13% of their Central Government revenue to SME subcontractors.”

    Footnote 5 ‘buried’ at the bottom of page 5: [Out of the 27 suppliers who provided any information] Four suppliers were able to provide partial data only. Six suppliers were unable to provide usable data. Eleven suppliers are yet to provide data but have promised to do so. Two suppliers are due to meet the Chief Procurement Officer to discuss further.

    Little wonder that they used the word ‘suggested’…

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