ODCamp 7: Going green(er) with open procurement data

Day two of Open Data Camp 7 at Geovation in London started with a session on public sector procurement data, and how it could be used to encourage green initiatives. Ian Makgill introduced the session. His company has a site that captures public tender information and makes it “freely available to everyone” and then analyses the data to say “oh look, this is how much work this company has got” or “here’s a trend in a particular kind of spending.”

However, he said, while this was interesting, it wasn’t having a big impact on organisational behaviour. But: “What we realised is that suppliers are very interested in when contracts are coming to an end. That’s understandable, but it’s also a massive leverage point at which the public could encourage procurement that reduces carbon.”

After all, government spends around £12.9 billion a year on things, and those things are responsible for about 17% of carbon output, because they are things like roads, and airports. So there should be an opportunity for experts and the public to get in and argue that setting a contract in a different way will induce change.

Asking the right questions

So, Ian asked the session, what information does @spendnetwork need to collect to do this? One participant said one thing might be how green suppliers were. However, Makgill said this misunderstood public procurement, which can’t discriminate between providers.

Instead, the challenge is to encourage any provider to take a different approach. Another participant said that, in that case, the questions that were asked in tenders were going to be vital. Ian agreed and said: “The legal framework is there to allow us to ask how much carbon, over the lifetime of a contract, a supplier is going to emit.”

Just asking the question is not enough, though. Someone needs to check whether this aspect of a contract was delivered. Another participant asked how often retrospective audits of carbon emissions were conducted. Ian said the answer is that this is variable; but to improve auditing, it was important to focus on things that really matter.

“We think you should identify two or three areas in a tender. So, if there is a food contract, you should look at food waste and two or three plant-based things.” Or, if it was a building contract, you should look at the materials used.

Even so, he added, this was quite a difficult area, because there might be an element of ‘green-washing’; but making sure that contract data was published as open data might make it easier to assess whether a supplier had paid ‘lip service’ to an issue or really engaged with it. One simple step would be to require public bodies to publish not just their tenders but their contract award notices, so it is easier to find out who had won a project and then follow-up on that.

Public pressure

Again, he said, getting the public engaged is likely to be keen. “If we can tell people: these are the contracts coming up in your area, and these are some things to ask about to make them different, then they can go and lobby their local politicians or organisations to do something about it.” Session participants suggested other levers, such as cost savings. One government department had insisted that its food came in compostable packaging to reduce the amount it was spending on waste disposal, for example.

Another participant suggested getting together “shovel ready policies” for local politicians to take to the electorate at election times. And stressing that using local companies would not only reduce carbon (probably) but put money back into the local economy. Ian agreed, again. “If you are a council and you use a local supplier for cloud services, then you can also open that up to other users, which is an attractive idea,” he said.

Or it might be possible to piggy-back on either campaigns, such as the declarations of a ‘climate emergency’ that a number of councils have made, or the public commitments to improve health and cut food and medical waste made by some NHS trusts. Or just to find a simple way to email councils with packages of guidance and examples of good practice when tenders came up.

This idea was very popular, but one participant said there should be a “randomised control trial”, to assess their impact, and whether they had more effect on, say, an organisation that had declared a climate emergency than one that had not. “There is lots of enthusiasm, we can’t afford not to do this, let’s just get started,” Ian concluded.

Follow Ian on Twitter.

[Session Notes]