Full exposure for Federal procurement data

By Julian Bajkowski

The federal Department of Finance has announced that it will for the first time release a giant mass of procurement data from the AusTender tender and contract tracking system as a single file to improve visibility of purchasing.

Speaking at the Kickstart technology media conference on the Sunshine Coast on Sunday, newly appointed Australian Government Procurement Coordinator and Chief Technology Officer, John Sheridan said that data that was previously only available as 1000 records at a time will now be available as a single CSV (comma separated value) file.

"This will be one…file, you will be able to sort and play with that to your hearts content," Mr Sheridan said.

"You'll also be able to look at the top 20 categories to see how many contracts there are for legal services, recruitment."

The release of the data represents a substantial opening of Canberra's sales history file.

It will allow industry, researchers and the public to drill down into taxpayer-funded purchasing in a way that will be able to present an authorities holistic picture of expenditure.

A constraint of having the purchasing data in blocks was that it made assembling statistics labour intensive and difficult, especially when sorting by  departments or agencies, industry sectors, vendors and product and service types.

"It's not that it hasn't been in the public domain before, previously  you needed to do a lot more work to see the data and get the results that you want," Mr Sheridan said.

However the exposure of the data may not give everyone working in and around government comfort.

While the difficulty of aggregating purchasing data has proved a frustration for successive ministers looking to track expenditure, it has also provided a degree of cover from scrutiny from the Opposition and the media looking to expose waste and mismanagement.

The exposure of the Rudd government's spending of around $500 million on consultants in its first year erupted in controversy after media organisations used the AusTender system to calculate the cost of external advisors.

Some departments initially challenged the consultancy spending calculations only to be later forced to adjust their financial reporting because of the AusTender data.

The release of the information is also a double-edged sword for the well developed cottage industry of analysts, tendering consultants and competitive  intelligence gleaners that have thrived on mashing together the free but disaggregated data and then reselling it to clients.

Canberra's new procurement Tsar also used his speech to further challenge the value that entrenched  government technology suppliers like Microsoft provide to government and taxpayers.

To deliver his presentation Mr Sheridan used a $2 slideware app called Haiku Deck that is a cheaper alternative to Microsoft's maligned PowerPoint presentation software that is embedded in its Office suite of so-called productivity applications.

"We have seen a very interesting challenge to the providers of software and hardware to government," Mr Sheridan said, noting that his new app "costs like a zillionth of what PowerPoint does."

"There is still a place for large enterprise style applications, Microsoft Office and related things… but most of us don't use all of the facilities of those large programs, most of us can concentrate on a small amount of things," Mr Sheridan said.

"If you can deliver an app for $2 or $3 that does that, I put it to you that you are in a much better place."

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