COINS in the fountain of open government; what does it tell us about public procurement? *

I generally applaud efforts to open up government although regular readers will know of my fears around publishing government contracts.

The publication of data from HM Treasury’s Combined Online Information System (COINS) last week is being hailed as a major step forward in terms of openness and indeed it is to some extent; a huge long list of everything central government has spent.

But the problem becomes obvious if you actually try to find out anything of real interest.

Let's take a real example. I know a Department that has engaged a consulting firm to do a procurement related piece of work.  I happen to have my doubts about whether it has been good value for money. I might be able to challenge this potential 'waste of public money' or propose doing the work for half the cost.   So  I would like to see from COINS how much has been spent; even then, I ideally need to know things like the daily consulting rate, and indeed what has been delivered for the money.

If I go into the database  (thanks to the Guardian who seem to have gone furthest so far in making it usable) - this is what I get.  A list of categories for that Department.   I click on 'purchase of consultancy services'.  There are over 300 items in this list.  Hmmm.  What sub-category might it be under?  Let's try 'central administration (there doesn't seem to be a 'procurement' sub-heading).

That gets me down to around 20 items.  But every one of them says "central administration' as a heading, and "purchase of consultancy services" is the item description.  Spend amounts vary from around £100K to several £ million.

And that's it.  That is as far as I can get.  No more detail.  I have no idea what these 20 projects actually involved, or who the supplier was.   So I can find out that Department X has spent a certain amount on consultancy in 'central admin'; but I have no idea what the spend really means, who the supplier was, let alone whether they saved 20 times the project cost or it was a complete incoherent shambles of an assignment.  And I can't find 'my' project in order to take any subsequent action.

So the Government's vision that people will find clever ways of using the data?  I can't see it myself.

(*   B****r all as far as I can see).


Rosslyn Analytics has just published this which links to their portal and analysis of the spend.  I have not had a chance to take a look at what they have done to see if it is more user friendly - will report back!

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