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Digital measures confirmed under UK procurement overhaul

A new platform and data standard will be introduced as part of a government move to bring simplicity and transparency to contracting

As the UK government introduces measures to revamp public sector procurement, a number of technology initiatives will be rolled out to support the process, aimed at making contracting simpler, less bureaucratic and more transparent.

The plans have been confirmed in the Cabinet Office’s response to a consultation that followed the government’s green paper on procurement transformation, published on 15 December 2020. More than 500 responses were received through many events on the topic until March 2021, from stakeholders who will be impacted by the changes, including public sector buyers and companies supplying services and products to the government.

Among the various measures to be introduced to shape the future of public procurement legislation, the bulk of the technology-related new initiatives reiterated in the response is around promoting openness and transparency. To improve the commercial lifecycle from planning to completion, the government plans to introduce a single digital platform for supplier registration.

According to the Cabinet Office, the tool will be centrally funded and aims to enable businesses to submit their data only once to qualify for any public sector procurement. The green paper had envisioned the platform would be designed and delivered in line with the Government Digital Service’s Technology Code of Practice and Service Standard. The paper proposed that contracting authorities could buy commercial systems and software from any supplier, provided they meet legal requirements on standards and interoperability.

The government’s response to the findings of the consultation noted that the vast majority (80%) of respondents supported the government’s plans to centralise commercial data in a single system, and that the added consistency expected from the rationalisation would reduce the admin burden for suppliers.

Providing registration information on a “tell us once” basis is seen as a helpful change for suppliers, particularly smaller firms which are more affected by long, bureaucratic and costly procurement processes.

On the other hand, respondents voiced concerns in areas such as interoperability expectations for transitioning to the new platform and whether migration timings would be realistic. Other points raised related to data storage and cyber security risks, and how these would be mitigated in the new setup.

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In its response, the Cabinet Office acknowledged the integration of e-tendering systems will likely require additional development work from system providers. “We will work closely with users and other stakeholders whilst building the system to ensure that the needs of the user community are met,” the consultation response noted.

Digital platform discovery workshops will be held in parallel with the legislative process to ensure the system meets user needs, the Cabinet Office added, will elements of the digital platform being subject to different rights of access. Contracts Finder would be retained and the new procurement platform will need to build flexibility to integrate with the procurement websites in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Moreover, features of the central platform include public access to all published data online and via application programming interfaces, links to e-procurement systems for tendering, as well as access to commercial data analysis tools. Future functionality would include contract performance data including spending and key performance indicators, as well as any complaints and legal challenges.

The government is also planning on asking all public sector bodies procuring products or services to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). Under the standard, data on public sector buying will be shared and analysed at contract and category level.

According to the consultation response, the majority of respondents during the consultation process were supportive of OCDS but 31% pointed out the significant systems changes the roll out of the new standard would require.

In its response to the point of how it would support contracting authorities in the adoption and transition to the new setup, the Cabinet Office said adoption of OCDS “will significantly improve data quality and interoperability” and added that it will work with these organisations and their e-tendering providers to make the shift to the new standard.

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