Getting OCD about OCDS

We welcome this guest post from Kelvin Prescott, Information Director at Innopsis, the public sector tech trade association that is championing better procurement practices between the public sector and its suppliers.

The Cabinet Office announced on 12 May their intention to implement the Open Contract Data Standard (ODCS) for contracts awarded by Crown Commercial Services from October of this year.

This is pretty big news for organisations interested in supplying to government. But what exactly is the Open Contract Data Standard, and what does implementation mean?

What Exactly is OCDS?

OCDS is a common language for describing the stages in the procurement process, and the contractual and spend information that is captured through it. It has been developed as an international standard by the Open Contracting Partnership, a group originally sponsored by the World Bank (and now by the Fund for the City of New York).

Professionals involved in public procurement will already be familiar with some standards for contract information. All public contracts above certain thresholds have to be advertised in a standard format on the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), and this format includes things like the Common Procurement Vocabulary (CPV) code that identifies the nature of the goods or services being purchased.

However, OCDS extends these standards, in a good way, by:

  • enabling the data to be captured, shared and synchronised using internet based tools (this is the JSON schema, for the techies out there)
  • describing the the entire contracting lifecycle, including individual transactions, spend information and contract changes post award
  • extending the standard to include call-off contracts awarded within framework agreements

You can read about the process definition and structure here.

When will this come to pass?

The implementation of OCDS will be piloted on the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project and then subsequently rolled out by Crown Commercial Service by October. However, it’s not 100% clear whether this means all spend that CCS manage (that would be an extraordinary achievement, if it could be done), or simply to spend on specific major projects. It’s likely to take a number of years before it starts to be routinely adopted.

However, one of the early areas of opportunity is in implementing OCDS compliant registers of some of the common entities involved in procurement – like buyers and suppliers. Bizarre as it sounds, there is no definitive list that you can go to today that identifies exactly who in the public sector qualifies as an Authority (an entity that buys). Similarly, there is no equivalent list of current suppliers (try combining spend data from more than one source and you will soon understand how hard it makes things). You can see some thoughts on this from GDS here.

OCDS is a great start to improving transparency about public sector procurement, but there is a huge amount more to do. Some of the areas that need further development include:

  • Category-specific data standards. OCDS is designed to capture information about every type of spend, from paperclips to submarines. As a result, the standard is pretty high level (for example, it only captures a very small set of information about each transaction – buyer, seller, date, description, amount). These will need extending for individual categories of supply if the data is to help buyers and suppliers understand the market fully.
  • Data quality and registration systems. Those who trawl through Contracts Finder will know that much of the data in the OCDS is already captured – in theory. But in practice the same information can be entered in multiple, often conflicting ways, or is omitted entirely. Care will be needed to avoid garbage going in and coming out.
  • eProcurement tools that can capture, use and share information using the standard. There is a plethora of electronic portals in use across public sector, many of which will need upgrading or replacing in order to make them compatible with OCDS. This kind of wide scale systems change can take a very long time.

However, there is a risk that these kinds of initiative provide an excuse for deferring improvements that can be made right now. While we wait, there is plenty that can be done to improve access to information about who is spending what in the public sector, which will help both buyers and suppliers to work together better.

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