Contracts for government projects should be more transparent, committee is told

James Allen of the NCVO tells the Public Administration Select Committee that prime contractors in the Work Programme should be accountable for their decisions

James Allen
James Allen

Prime contracts for large government projects such as the Work Programme should be more transparent, third sector representatives told a parliamentary committee today.

Giving evidence to a Public Administration Select Committee investigation into procurement, James Allen, head of public services and partnerships at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said he had problems with the existing implementation of the prime contractor model.

"There’s an issue around transparency," he said. "If we’re going to use prime contractors, we have to allow them to make decisions – but they have to be accountable for those decisions."

He said more data should be available on what contractors were doing, and that it should be available in an easily digestible format. "The performance data we see isn’t clear," he said. "It isn’t clear which contractors are doing well and which less well."

Allen said that in the Work Programme there was no evidence of how taxpayers’ money was being spent or how supply chains were being managed, and that it was difficult to know who had ultimate responsibility for individual clients.

He said that despite having worked with many subcontractors he was "frankly mystified about what’s going on through supply chains" and that attempts to find out who was accountable for particular issues resulted in "a blame game between subcontractors and prime contractors and the Department for Work and Pensions".

Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, called for a move to "open-book accounting", a form of monitoring used in large construction contracts, which would allow commissioners to see the books of contractors and would make it clear which contractors were succeeding.

"There are a range of levers that government could apply to ensure greater transparency," he said.

Holbrook also questioned how much the prime contracting model had reduced risk for government. "As government is the accountable body it will always bear ultimate responsibility," he said.

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