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Online Contracts Monitoring: First Year Lessons Learned

by PolicyFellow

Sunlight’s International Fellow presents an up-for-grabs contracts monitoring platform and year-one takeaways.

In late 2010*, the government in the small country of Slovakia took a bold policy step mandating almost all public contracts and invoices be published online. A reaction to a series of scandals, this was done in hopes of bringing unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability (read more here). However, the official portal the government launched in early 2012 was half-baked, missing full-text search, documents preview or space for comments. While the policy produced more data (“transparency,” if you will), it left accountability untouched.

Then, almost a year ago, Open Contracts (automated English translation) came to the rescue. The site co-developed by watchdog groups Transparency International Slovakia and the Fair Play Alliance hoped to provide effective ways of sifting through more than 200,000 contracts, facilitating crowd-sourced monitoring and potentially whistle-blowing.

What Open Contracts Does

Open Contracts provides full-text search ability (after the data had been crunched by Tesseract OCR) to sort the data by 12 dimensions such as vendors/contractors, amounts, duration of contracts, or number of pages in the contract that can be recombined to narrow down the search. A user, say a medical supplies vendor, could create an RSS feed and receive notifications when a state-funded hospital buys equipment from its competitor.

The site seems very popular with users. Having access to stats for the official portal, we know it receives almost two thirds of its traffic and users spend roughly the same amount of time on both of the sites.

Crowdsourcing reporting and monitoring proved to be less successful. Comments and highlighted passages (features we were really excited about) are scarce. Perhaps this is also because Slovakia is a tiny country and there are only so many, or rather so few, people willing to engage in this wonky activity.

But we erred as well; mostly by not designing a reporting process to be as easy as possible. At the moment, even if someone finds a problematic contract, there is really no “final step” offered on the site to take. We could not find a perfect solution of alerting respective stakeholders – whether police or journalists – and ended offering no action. We left it to users, losing the ability to prod them in the direction or measure the interventions sparked by the website.

Four lessons for Open Contracts (and other activist sites)

Looking back at the first year of this project, I think we have the infrastructure in place and now we need to start helping people using the tool.

There are four lessons and challenges I’d like to share with anyone wanting to fork and internationalize the code (mostly Ruby) and build their own contract monitoring site:

1. If your problem is complex, try breaking it down into small, manageable chunks.

Attention is scarce and some issues are complicated. Unless you are building a site for five wonks and you seek help from crowds, you will need to restructure problems into smaller chunks people can help with.

I am not sure how to do it yet, but I think it has to be done.

2. Try to make anything as easy and seamless as possible.

Good design helps – if your grandmother could use the site, it works. Search worked for us. We did not realize few people do not use RSS feed, so we will work e-mail notifications and dashboards to help them track their activities.

3. Make sure to have use-cases for target group and actions you want them to take and measure them.

Different groups of people will come to your site for different reasons. Make sure you understand them and talk to them to learn their needs. Pay special attention to those whose interests align best with your strategic goals. If possible, track desired actions. It will help your design and reporting to donors.

4. Plan for community

Try to get people in the crowd to know each other. You don’t need to build a new social network, but help users (if only by allowing sharing some information) to communicate and collaborate.

This is what I think right now. I will let you know in due course whether it worked. Please feel free to contact me if you think I could help.

*This post was updated to reflect the correct year.

Matej Kurian works as a program coordinator at Transparency International Slovakia and co-managed several of its online projects including a public procurement reporting portal tender.sme.sk or Open Local Govt transparency benchmarking project. He works with Sunlight Foundation as part of the State Dept. and IREX‘s Community Solutions Program.