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Secret government contracts undermine our democracies. Let's stop them

How do we know that the money we collectively give to our governments is being properly spent? We don't. A new campaign seeks to change that.

The British government has just awarded a contract to manage the plundering of personal health data from GPs' records. The winner, French company Atos, is best known in Britain for incompetently assessing disabled people's "fitness to work". That doesn't inspire confidence.

We could mention the contracting out of court translation services, or of army recruitment, or of asylum housing. Or the unfolding mess that is G4S-run Oakwood Prison. The outsourcing of UK public services is not going well.

The story we are told about the democratic control of public money goes something like this:

Governments get money from us in the form of taxes and other sources of revenue. In exchange they provide us with essential goods, services and infrastructure that we all need: schools and hospitals, roads and rails, pipes and pensions.

To ensure that this money is properly spent, we expect to have some basic safeguards in place.

Firstly, we expect to be able to obtain information about how this money is spent – from the lofty overviews of annual government budgets to the brass tacks of receipts received through formal legal requests.

Secondly, we expect to be able to exercise a basic level of democratic control over how this money is spent, and what it buys us. If things go wrong we expect there to be mechanisms in place to fix them — from the complaints box to the ballot box.

Unfortunately, when governments buy things in from external contractors this story starts to break down.

For a start, government contractors are usually only required to disclose a bare minimum of information (if anything at all) about what they have received money for, on what terms, and what they ended up delivering. They are exempt from access to information rules, including Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Many invoke commercial confidentiality as an excuse not to disclose what they are up to, leaving the public in the dark.

What’s more, government contractors are not directly accountable to the public, nor to parliaments. Their supposed masters are civil service commissioners who have shown time and again that they are not up to the task. The public have no direct lines of control to mandate change or reign them in if things aren’t going well.

Government contractors get all the benefits of access to big pots of public money, with few of the costs. We citizens are expected to shoulder the expense of vast corporate contracts, with few of the checks and balances usually in place to protect public money from fraud, abuse and gratuitous profiteering.

With this in mind it is truly astonishing how much money leaves the public purse with so few strings and so little information about its fate available to the public.

Decades of neoliberal economic policy have created a climate that is generally very favourable towards the privatisation and outsourcing of government services in many countries around the world. This has precipitated the vast transfer of public wealth to private pockets, without corresponding democratic controls.

Globally, it is estimated that governments collectively spend over $9.5 trillion on public contracts — that's around four times the size of Britain’s economy. On average OECD governments spend around 15 per cent of their GDP and developing countries spend around 70 per cent of their budgets on contracting out goods and services.

The opacity of public contracting enables and encourages fraud and abuse. Africa and the EU each lose around $150 billion every year to corruption and mismanagement. It is estimated that between a tenth and a quarter of all publicly funded projects in developing countries is lost.

While politicians continue to argue that privatisation and outsourcing give citizens the best deal we are denied the evidence we’d need to be able to evaluate whether this is true, or whether we’re being taken for a ride. This obstructs and inhibits public interest advocacy, reporting and reforms.

In short: secret government contracting is undermining the democratic control of public money.

Today the Open Knowledge Foundation and more than thirty other civil society organisations are launching a new global campaign calling on world leaders to give citizens the information they need to hold governments and contractors to account.

We’re working with grassroots activists and transparency organisations around the world — from Hungary to Nepal to South Sudan — to send a strong message to governments that unaccountable secret contracting has to stop.

We hope you’ll join us. Visit StopSecretContracts.org to sign.

About the author

Jonathan Gray is Director of Policy and Research at Open Knowledge, an award-winning civil society organisation dedicated to opening up public information, research and culture to benefit the lives of citizens around the world. He is also Researcher at the University of Amsterdam and the University of London. More about him can be found at jonathangray.org and he is on Twitter at @jwyg


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