Fixing procurement must start with better data: Thompson

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

In relation to purchases of information technology, the federal government is currently not able to properly understand with any real clarity what it is buying, from whom it is buying, and what price it is paying. And the first step in improving its procurement woes is all about data, according to former Digital Marketplace lead and procurement expert Catherine Thompson.

Ms Thompson, who is a former chief procurement officer at a Big Four bank and has 30 years international procurement experience, put forward a policy paper to “fix our broken government tech procurement” in The Innovation Papers, to be launched in Canberra on Thursday.

To have truly transparent government procurement, we need to first fix the data, Ms Thompson said, and get a clear understanding what is being bought, and from which providers.

“At the federal government level, we cannot currently tell this with any degree of confidence, and nor has it been considered a government priority to do so,” she said.

“Accurate and publicly accessible public sector procurement data is valuable to industry and civil society, as well as government itself.”

Catherine Thompson
Hypereal co-founder Catherine Thompson

Ms Thompson pointed to a recent contract posted on AusTender by the Australian Electoral Commission listed only as being for “software” and “work order E01”, worth $20.4 million. This information is entirely inadequate.

There have been a number of attempts to improve the public reporting and data around Australian government procurement.

The ICT Procurement Taskforce abandoned its efforts to take the raw data from AusTender years ago, and Ms Thompson said the data on this platform is not actively curated and lacks explanatory power.

“Although the database is centrally held, each agency contributes to it according to its own lights, navigating the complex coding structure as best it may and providing text descriptions as it sees fit,” she said.

The ICT Trends report, an annual information collation from agency ledgers, ceased publication several years ago. The Digital Marketplace previously reported on spend, opportunity type, winners and average pricing, but this “discreetly vanished” when the Marketplace was re-platformed onto commercial software, Ms Thompson said.

Ms Thompson has called for the designation of a data custodian with formal accountability for the quality of procurement data, and the creation of a simple taxonomy of ICT expense categories to replace the current coding.

This taxonomy should be adopted into the chart of accounts of central Commonwealth agencies, to “not only reduce complexity but also create consistency between agency general ledgers and the public record of their procurement”.

The government should then be required to report on whether the contracts are fixed price or capped and originals or amendments, and multi-year contracts should be split into annual spends.

“All three actions will contribute to more accurate forward estimates,” Ms Thompson said.

This new data should also be publicly discoverable through a user-friendly data visualisations tool, she said.

“I reflect on how humdrum and transactional these recommendations appear. But then: how much clearer do recommendations need to be before change is enacted?” Ms Thompson said.

“The stories we tell in today’s digital world are all narrated with data. As accountable public servants and citizens, if we fail to roll up our sleeves and engage with this and other imperfect narrations, we are failing both the nation and ourselves.”

Ms Thompson’s Innovation Papers piece also looks at improving the value and capability of government procurement in order to access the power of procurement for innovation to the public good.

The Innovation Papers [Live} event will be held at The National Gallery in Canberra on the morning of Thursday August 4. Register here to secure you seat at this important policy discussion.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. Digital Koolaid 2 years ago

    The Digital Marketplace was a dog. The person who designed it delivered a piece of garbage, that has gone away now (Actually copied it from the UK and the GDS claimed credit for helping. In Australia we Imitate to Innovate). Of course the federal government (staff) is currently unable to properly understand with any real clarity what it is buying, from whom it is buying, and what price it is paying. The APS is generally untrained, inexperienced and commercially naive. It’s clever though, in a cunning sort of way. The DM provided a lot of cover (the “market test”) for sneaky tricks. But if you don’t know what you are doing no amount of “data” will help you – you don’t know what you’re looking at, and data is in the rear-view anyway. It’s about the past. The future is a place for people who know what they are doing before they do it. Time to train the APS. (People who refer to “general ledgers” mostly don’t know what a ledger really is. Same applies to data. No offence.)

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