MPs express disappointment in paucity of data on multimillion-pound contracts
Government departments have been “overly secretive” about their spending on external consultants providing support for their Brexit preparations, a committee of MPs has said.
Departments, which have together signed consultancy contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds since the June 2016 referendum – including a number of £1m-plus IT deals – have taken “far too long to publish details” of the deals and failed to meet “their own basic standards of transparency”, the Public Accounts Committee said in a scathing report.
Departments are taking 119 days on average to publish basic details of their Brexit consultancy contracts – far exceeding the 90 days set out in government guidance – with the worst offenders stretching to 237 days. Contracts that have been published have been “heavily redacted”, according to the committee, while others have not been published at all.
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The committee also found a “longstanding and widening discrepancy” between spending data published by the Cabinet Office and by other departments. In 2017-18, the Cabinet Office reported that £1.5bn had been spent of consultancy across government, based on its analysis of invoices, but only £300m of this was revealed in spending figures published by individual departments.
Brexit-related consultancy contributed to a 14% spike in departments’ overall spending on consultants last year. An analysis last month from PublicTechnology sister title Civil Service World, that together, 18 departments spent £663.7m on consultancy services in 2018-19, up from £581.6m the previous year, with most attributing the increase to Brexit preparations and IT projects. Departments signed a fresh round of contracts worth £160m in May.
The committee also criticised departments for giving the lion’s share of the total value of the contracts to a small group of large businesses. “The Cabinet Office seems overly complacent about this, despite previous government commitments to contract with more small and medium-sized enterprises,” the report said. The government has repeatedly said it wants to award contracts to a broader range of suppliers and make it easier for smaller businesses to bid for work.
The spending watchdog also said it was concerned that the contracts were largely focused on strategy. It said the work had “tended to fall under the category of thinking and shaping rather than delivering, despite the former traditionally being considered a strength of the civil service”.
Earlier this year shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett accused the government of “outsourcing the civil service”, saying officials had been sidelined during he called a “gold rush” for businesses.
The committee concluded that the Cabinet Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union must commit to making the government’s Brexit preparations transparent, including “timely publication” of consultancy contracts and progress updates on workstreams. The Cabinet Office must also “urgently address” the inconsistencies between its own and departmental reporting on consultancy spending, they said.
PAC said there had been disappointingly little progress made since a report it published more than 18 months ago warning about a lack of transparency about Brexit preparations. In the February 2018 report, the spending watchdog said: “The paucity of information in the public domain about what departments are doing to support Brexit is undermining scrutiny of progress.”
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said its departments were “world leaders in opening up data” and had “taken significant strides toward improving transparency”.
“For projects requiring specialist skills, including on Brexit priorities, we draw upon the advice of external specialists to fill certain skills gaps and to meet immediate staffing needs,” they added. “The details of all government consultancy contracts over £10,000 are published online, in addition to the actual monthly departmental spend for those contracts.”