UNITE PUBLIC QUESTION TIME AT AUDIT COMMITTEE

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CCC 25.06.14

 

Item no.10

 

Will commissioned services reduce elected Councillor oversight, public engagement, accountability and transparency?

 

In my local Council I can:

 

         Vote every 2, 3 or 4 years;

         Contact my local elected Councillor to act for me on an issue

         Stand as a Councillor at elections;

         Inspect papers, agendas and minutes before committee meetings;

         Attend committee meetings and ask questions publicly (which have to be

answered)

         Submit Freedom of Information (FOI) questions;

         Inspect the accounts every year and ask questions;

         Exercise my statutory rights to appeal wrong doing to the District Auditor.

 

Q1. How will this Council ensure that commissioned services maintain good governance and protect the democratic access and rights we have now?

 

Q2. If a service is commissioned into a limited company, then will the Companies Act supersede the Local Government Act, as has happened in South West One, where information access was barred, as the Freedom of Information Act only applies to public bodies?

 

Q3. Will elected Councillors be free to participate in the governance of commissioned services without a conflict of interest barring committee oversight back in the Council (as happened with South West One)?

 

Q4. Will elected Councillors participating in the governance of commissioned services require publicly-funded indemnity against consequential losses etc (as happened with South West One)?

 

Q5. If commissioned services are exempt from elected Councillor and public oversight, could that impact on public engagement and election turnout?

 

Q6. How will the public sector service ethos be maintained, when Council employees are transferred to a commissioned service provider?

 

Q7. How will Trade Union recognition rights and participation be maintained, when Council services are transferred to a commissioned service provider?

 

Q8. How will statutory duties, regulator inspections and all of the associated risks be transferred to commissioned services providers?

 

Q9. Will commissioned services be required to submit performance metrics for councillor and public oversight?

 

Q10. With National debt at £1.3 trillion and still rising, if further Government cuts are made to this Council’s grant, how will commissioned services share in those cuts, or will future cuts only fall upon services remaining in-house (mainly community-based social care)?

22 January 2014

22 January 2014

A new contract? The transparency of outsourced public services: event note
Context

 

22 January 2014

Documents with redacted information

A new contract? The transparency of outsourced public services: event note

Context

The CBI, Information Commissioner’s Office and the Institute for Government convened a roundtable discussion with representatives from companies providing services to government, government departments, the voluntary and charity sector, and from campaign groups and others.

The discussion, held under the Chatham House rule, took place in a context of government moving progressively towards greater transparency. The UK has recently chaired the Open Government Partnership (OGP), launched Contracts Finder, published the National Information Infrastructure and has committed to doing more on open contracting in the OGP National Action Plan. There is appetite for further progress, however. The CBI and the Institute for Government have recommended steps to increase transparency around government contracting and the Information Commissioner’s Office is calling for progress in this area.

The discussion aimed to clarify what different groups involved in this debate wanted to see changed and why; what the potential obstacles to changes might be; and how these might be overcome. This note captures the key themes of the discussion and will feed into further work on developing practical propositions for taking this agenda forward.

Why transparency is desirable?

There was broad consensus that greater transparency was desirable and would be achievable provided there is sufficient political will. Various reasons were given for increased transparency, including:

To fulfil public ‘right’ to be informed of how taxpayer money is spent.

To improve taxpayers’ ability to hold government to account.

To improve government’s ability to hold service providers to account.

To boost public confidence and trust in outsourced service provision.

To increase market efficiency, for example by allowing new entrants to identify opportunities and incumbents to identify and emulate high performers.

To understand and ensure market diversity, including social sector representation, where appropriate.

 

What transparency is desirable?

Conversations covered various types of transparency, including:

Contracts themselves – or contractual terms.

Costs – contract values and/or annual costs.

Performance information – against service level agreements (SLAs), other measures (potentially including end-to end service performance measures), customer/user feedback

Profits – for example, through open book accounting.

Supply chain information – for example, proportion of work subcontracted to others, terms of subcontracting (particularly levels of risk transfer), and details on the types of organisation (VCS/other) in the supply chain.

Process/policies/procedures – particularly for customers who may have queries or concerns about the management of their own cases.

22 January 2014

 

There was significant debate over the following areas:

Variable practices: There are currently inconsistent approaches to transparency across different service areas, geographies, and sectors.

Difficulties in assessing performance: Many participants emphasised the importance of contextual information when assessing performance. There was also debate about the value (and risks) of league table assessments, particularly for more complex services. Highly tailored contracts mean that comparisons within categories can be crude and misleading. League tables of provider performance are particularly problematic because of additional difficulties in comparing providers who work in different service areas.

Public vs private boundaries: There was debate about whether differential rules should apply to public and private organisations. Many suggested the need to ensure accountability followed the public pound and ensure that no sector (public or private) was privileged.

Points of contact: There was also debate about whether the contracting authority should be responsible for ensuring provider transparency or whether FOI and other transparency requests should go direct to providers.

Transparency by design vs FOI: Some participants argued that transparency by design was cheaper and more effective to enforce. Others emphasised the need for FOI as a back-stop and to allow more tailored information requests. Effective design around data releases was seen as having potential to minimise costs of data collection and provision.

The need for partnership: Transparency arrangements were seen as likely to be more effective if underpinned by effective partnerships.

Whether public interest was in provider capability or specific service areas.

Official statistics: The designation of some data releases as official statistics was seen as having disadvantages in terms of timeliness of information releases – though may boost trust.

The adequacy of FOI alone (see figure 2).

 

Figure 1: Views on the adequacy of the existing scope of Freedom of Information legislation

 

YES

 

 

 

NO

If a public authority is subjected to a request, the provider will be obliged to give the information Contracting out leads to a loss of accountability because private providers are not covered – all public functions should be covered
Contractual clauses are sufficient Contractual clauses are insufficient, inconsistent and put the public authority in charge of release
Section 43 adequately respects the commercial confidentiality of providers An open environment could allow competitors to unravel rivals’ costs models
Section 43 clearly protects commercial interests Section 43 requires further clarification – interpretation of ‘prejudicial to commercial interests’ can vary

 

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