Government: the price of fairness and transparency

There are two aspects of the things that government does that attract inordinate cost: fairness and transparency.

If the government wants to do something, it has to do it fairly. And it has to be able to demonstrate this fairness and defend it to scrutiny. Yes, there are thresholds beneath which fairness is less of an issue. But these thresholds are so relatively low, particularly given the scale at which government tends necessarily to procure things. And the result is that the vast majority of what government does is subject to these two features.

If you need to get your house painted (and have chosen to outsource the work), you’ll likely get three quotes, likely from decorators that you know or those that have been recommended to you. Each will quote for something subtly different, such are the idiosyncrasies of workmen, and you’ll plump for one—largely based on price but also based on gut feel. If one proposed to use Dulux to another’s Crown, you won’t ask them to re-align. And if one included the railings and one didn’t, you’ll probably sort this out once you’ve selected your preferred bidder.

Such shoddy supplier selection is unheard of in government, largely because of the possible reprisals. If a bunch of IT suppliers are bidding for a £600m multi-year outsourcing deal, then the government must invoke very strict rules to ensure that the suppliers bid against the same requirements, and that any information given to one supplier is also given to the others.

This process takes some orchestrating. Requirements need to be documented to the nth degree before suppliers are brought into the loop. Requests for information and requests for proposals need to be issued. And once suppliers are actively involved, an onerous process is needed to orchestrate communications and coordinate the objective evaluation of their respective bids. As well as necessitating significant resource from the government to manage this, each of the suppliers also needs to dedicate similar resource in navigating its own journey through the process. Sometimes the suppliers’ costs are paid for upfront by government. Where they’re not, they will doubtless be factored into the suppliers’ bid prices many times over.

Throughout all of this, a paper trail, or its modern-day equivalent, needs to be kept. In case of scrutiny, the government must be able to demonstrate the requirements against which the suppliers bid, what their responses were, how they were evaluated, and, ultimately, why the chosen option was taken.

Whether the government is buying buildings, cleaning services, IT systems, furniture, vehicles, people, laptops, security gates, carpets or urinals, the above process, to varying degrees, must be followed. And resources must orchestrate it. And the taxpayer must foot the bill. Such is the price of fairness and transparency.


One Response to “Government: the price of fairness and transparency”

  1. Simon on May 17th, 2011 10:08

    This is of course a fine weapon in the armoury of the government. However I disagree with most of what you are saying. If you were writing a piece of how things should be then I sort of agree/disagree.

    The issue I have noted is that government does not want to be fair and government does not want to be transparent. What they want is to be seen to be fair and be seen to be transparent. A huge difference and one that leads to a lot of problems.

    The first problem is that under the name of fairness a lot of unfair activity occurs. People get hired, contracts get let etc etc all unfairly. Yet challenge this and the press office will respond with a claim that it cannot be true BECAUSE they have clear processes and guidelines on fairness. Knowing how to play this game ensures that there is a thick layer of official armour. Rules are there to protect those who do unfair things.

    Transparency does not exist. Government does not volunteer things. It responds to leaks and inbound questions using the minimum information it can get away with.

    You are right on one thing. It costs us a lot of money. But it is not spent on ensuring transparency or fairness.

    What it comes down to is simple. The civil service is self regulating. The very people making the rules and policing are part of the organisation that uses the rules and all headed up ultimately by the same people. If there is one accountable person (head of civil service) who both makes the rules and polices them then how can we hope to achieve anything.

    The irony is of course that the government would not allow industry on the whole to regulate itself. Ofcom, ofgen of…, the judiciary are independent, press complaints commission, banking ombudsman. They are clear that self-regulation does not work.

    Self proclaimed transparency and fairness is a fools paradise.

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