Points of View 12th July 2013

“It is essential that the public and parliamentarians have access to all the information they need to scrutinise the delivery of services” | Tim Hughes, Involve

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

Yesterday (11 July 2013) brought revelations that two major private providers of public services, G4S and Serco, may have been overcharging the Ministry of Justice on contracts to electronically tag offenders to the tune of the “low tens of millions” of pounds. The Guardian reported that:

“Whitehall sources say that a new forensic audit will look at a central allegation that the justice ministry was being billed for the tagging of 18,000 offenders a day when only 15,000 were actually being monitored – raising the prospect of being charged for 3,000 “phantom” offenders or one in six of all those on tags.”

While it’s reported that Serco has agreed to fully co-operate with a forensic audit, Chris Grayling MP (the Justice Secretary) told MPs that he has asked the Serious Fraud Office to consider an investigation of G4S due to their rejection of a forensic audit.

This is far from the first time that a private provider of public services has been accused of dishonest and/or evasive behaviour in the way they manage and deliver government contracts (other examples can be found here, here, here and here).

These revelations underline the importance of all public service providers being subject to the same scrutiny and accountability mechanisms as public providers, while G4S’s refusal to co-operate with a forensic audit demonstrates the importance of transparency and accountability being compulsory – not something that those in receipt of public funds can choose to opt out of.

This is why members of the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network have called on the Government to extend Freedom of Information legislation to any organisation delivering public services. We state, in the civil society annex of the UK’s draft Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, that:

“The Government should widen the scope of the FoI Act to apply to any organisation delivering public services. An effective FoI Act that applies across all organisations in receipt of public funds and with low barriers to use by citizens, the media, civil society and other interested parties is a critical element of open government.

[…]

The public’s rights to information should not be reduced when a contractor assumes responsibility for providing a public service nor should the level of disclosure depend on the terms of each individual contract. As public service delivery is increasingly outsourced, it is essential that the public and parliamentarians have access to all the information they need to scrutinise the delivery of services.”

The draft National Action Plan is open for consultation until 19th September 2013 giving an opportunity for voices from across civil society to advocate for a strong commitment to FOI reform when the plan is finally published in October.

Tim Hughes, Involve

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