Missing Data Is A Known Unknown
There is a famous quote about the fragility of knowledge by Donald Rumsfeld, the hawkish US Secretary of Defence during the Iraq war:
“as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Following the legal judgement against the UK Government for delaying publication of their contract notices, the question of how many contracting records are yet to be published is effectively a known unknown for the UK.
In relative terms, the UK publishes more data on procurement than almost any other country, but our inability to know how much contracting data is missing indicates how far the UK and other countries have to travel if we’re to achieve true transparency.
In an attempt to answer this question we’ve taken the last four years of contracting data for central government in the UK and compared it to the spending data for the same period. If we count how many suppliers have been awarded contracts each year between 2017 and 2020 we find an average of 6,401 suppliers have been listed each year. However, when we look at the spend data, the average number of suppliers being paid by central government entities during that period is over 31,852.
So an 80% difference.
When we reconcile this data to supplier records, something that takes significant amounts of work, including manual and automatic matching, we still end up with a 78% difference.
Does this mean that around 80% of award notices are missing? Not quite. This analysis can only indicate that there’s an awful lot of data missing, but it can’t say precisely how much data is missing.
The sheer scale of the differential indicates that there is a problem here. For instance a search on Contracts Finder, England’s procurement transparency database, for a prominent London Borough returns just two contract award notices. It simply isn’t credible that a council in London has let only two contracts in four years. The only reasonable explanation is that they have failed to publish the data required.
We know that the team at the Cabinet Office has been working hard to improve this data, but the responsibility for compliance lies with the publishers. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Cabinet Office has better things to do, the publishers knows what they should be doing, they have the tools to do so, why can’t they publish this information?
Rumsfeld was roundly ridiculed for his quote, somewhat unfairly to my mind, trying find new ways to describe our collective ignorance seems like a useful endeavour, despite what else you might be getting up to.
Covid-19 has put a spotlight on all of our governments, their integrity is very much at stake and transparency is a chance to turn known unknowns into known knowns. Governments should think earnestly about the benefit of choosing collective enlightenment over collective ignorance.
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