How we uncovered a controversial Brexit contract using open contracting data
While the provision of open contracting data in the UK has expanded rapidly in recent years, one hurdle that the transparency movement has yet to vault is making this data truly useful. What follows is a story about how open contracting data, if mined correctly, can provoke a timely national debate on British public spending.
I work for Tussell, a tech start-up that wants to make the UK the easiest place in the world for companies to do business with the government. We do this by transforming open data into usable insights for anyone interested in the £220bn UK public procurement market – companies of all sizes, capital market investors, government and journalists.
It was precisely our work with the press that led to one recent international news story that had an impact far beyond what we imagined at the time…
Not your typical Christmas tale
Every day we pull in every notice published on Tenders Electronic Daily and Contracts Finder. Our data team watches over these notices as they come in, correcting anything egregiously wrong – like a London hospital, UCLH, claiming they spent £12bn on a surgical robot – and watching for any notices of public interest.
One morning, in the hazy neverland between Christmas and New Year, one of these faithful servants to transparency found that the Department for Transport had published (on Christmas Eve no less) three contracts, worth £103m, for “additional shipping freight capacity” awarded to Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne Freight.
These contracts were to be used in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to provide additional freight routes were the Dover-Calais crossing to become congested. Given the urgency of the situation, the notices state, these contracts were awarded without a public tendering process.
This was clearly a story worthy of public attention – with three months to go until Brexit day preparations were ramping up, and this situation was urgent enough to require the bypassing of normal tendering procedures.
We flagged these contracts on Twitter, and worked with journalists to get the story out – it appeared that evening on the BBC, in the Times and in the Independent.
This alone would make for an important story – if one with a limited lifespan in the frenetic British news cycle – in planning for a no-deal Brexit, the UK had hired European firms for a multi-million-pound job, without any open tendering. But the next morning I got a call from a local activist in Ramsgate. He’d heard the story on the BBC and told me he had been investigating one of the three firms awarded these contracts, Seaborne Freight, for many months. It had been in talks with Thanet District Council about reopening the Ramsgate-Ostend crossing and he had his doubts about the company’s ability to fulfill this contract. After connecting this activist to our media contacts we saw the story snowball into major and international news for many weeks.
This story only came to light thanks to a combination of the transparency embedded into public contracting in the UK and our continuous oversight of the data passing through the system. This allowed proper scrutiny on an issue that might have otherwise flown under the radar – or at least gone unnoticed for a lot longer.
While the Department of Transport initially defended the deal, the Seaborne Freight contract was subject to multiple Freedom of Information requests, covered by the global press, and discussed multiple times in Parliament. All this criticism led the government to announce on 9 Feburary that it was terminating its contract with the shipping firm.
From open data to useful data
While this story was an excellent example of the role open data and oversight can play in enhancing transparency in the UK, it is only a small part of what this approach offers to the UK procurement market. What it really offers is the opportunity to look at the bigger picture of British public spending.
We’re part of an increasingly vibrant community of organizations trying to make public contracting data accessible and useful. We aggregate and standardize all of the notices published by the UK government – this allows us to tell our clients not only that Accenture has recently been awarded a contract with the Home Office to build case working software for EU migrants post-Brexit, but that it has won 9 contracts worth £40m by the Home Office since 2017. We can also tell you that it has won 33 other contracts from 23 other public buyers, all in a matter of seconds.
We can use stories such as the ferry contracts to prompt a wider public investigation into the use of emergency contracting procedures by the UK public sector. We can tell the government which contracting authorities are dodging their legal requirements to publish in Contracts Finder. We can tell companies where they are missing business. We tell investors which companies are winning big government contracts.
All this feeds into our original goal, of making the UK the easiest place to do business with the government, by making the UK public procurement market more transparent, more accessible and more effective.
Open contracting needs to be a key part of this, so that we, and anyone else, can effectively keep an eye out for what the government is spending – even on Christmas.