In preparation for a CGD working group on government contract publication, we’ve been looking at how much information governments already put online about the contracts that they award. Australia — current president of the G-20 — is an interesting case. It doesn’t proactively publish the full text of contracts as the UK, Slovakia, and Colombia do. But it does publish a lot of information about who won government contracts for what and for how much. Even better, it publishes it in an easily searchable form and even puts out Excel spreadsheets with summary data.
And while it doesn’t publish the contacts, Australian government guidance on Confidentiality throughout the Procurement Cycle does state that once a contract has been awarded the terms of the contract are not confidential, unless the agency has determined and identified in the contract that specific information is to be kept confidential in accordance with the guidance on specific clauses. And the contract database flags contracts if they have these specific confidentiality clauses and provides the reason for them: costing and profit information; intellectual property; Privacy Act considerations; ‘public interest’; secrecy provisions; and ‘other.’
The Need for Secrecy Is Low
The Australian contracts database is an incredibly useful tool to see how widespread are potential confidentiality issues that might arise from proactively publishing all contracts. The answer appears to be: not so widespread, and focused around commercial secrets.
Looking at the 74,859 Australian federal contracts in the database for 2012, with a combined value of a little over 40 billion Australian dollars, 1,676 contracts were flagged with confidentiality clauses. That’s about 2.2 percent of the total. (They were bigger than average contracts, worth nearly 7 percent of total contracting value.) Nearly one-half of the contracts with confidentiality flags listed costing and profit information as the reason for the flag. Ten percent raised intellectual property concerns. Privacy Act and public interest considerations accounted for another 13 percent between them. Statutory secrets were involved in 4 percent of contracts, leaving ‘other’ with a 24 percent share.
In short: only about one in fifty contracts signed by the Federal Government in Australia raise specific confidentiality concerns. Of those concerns, considerably over half involve commercial secrets –profit, price, or intellectual property.
Pushing for More Open Contracts
The new CGD working group will be studying the issues surrounding government contract publication, particularly the concerns of privacy and commercial and state secrets. The group hopes to develop a consensus about the best way to maximize contract transparency while protecting those (legitimate) secrets. Australia’s data provides a valuable guide as to where and how significant are the issues.
And back to Australia’s presidency of the G-20: the group has a focus on fighting corruption, investment and infrastructure ,and development. Greater government contract transparency can play a role in delivering better quality infrastructure and services at lower cost and with greater probity. Why not use the G-20 forum to push for more open contracting across G-20 countries and beyond? Australia’s own data suggests it wouldn’t be that difficult to do.