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How Open Data Can Engage Civil Society and Improve Procurement Oversight

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With the release of our report on Philippine public procurement we are now two cases into our deep look at procurement transparency and open contracting. As we look at these cases some important themes about data accessibility have begun to emerge. As I said in our Philippines write up: “absent accessible data, whistleblowers and leaks are the only safeguard against corruption. When the data is not readily available, it can’t enable meaningful oversight.” To be truly accessible, simply posting information online is not enough. For transparency to actually lead to accountability, barriers to using the data must be low. Data should be open to the public without gates, published in open and machine-readable formats, and available in bulk. These are things that we have been longtime proponents of at the Sunlight Foundation, (see our Open Data Guidelines), and our case research so far confirms their importance.

In the Slovak Republic we found that the release of procurement data changed who was able to uncover corrupt procurements. Gabriel Sipos, Executive Director of Transparency International Slovakia (TI-Slovakia) explained:

In the past tips came from companies who felt passed over, and sometimes from officials. So, it often happened for personal or private gains. Now this is still the case, but a lot more come from local activists and individuals. People who have access to this information, who just care and who don’t like it. That is mostly the case for tenders in smaller cities and in smaller places. (Sipos, 33:00-35:00)

In the Philippines, however, we found that, despite some real procurement reforms and the implementation of an electronic bulletin board for procurement (PhilGEPS), tips still largely come from the inside. Iris Gonzalez, a journalist in the Philippines who has covered procurement, summarized the problem:

[I]f you are a working journalist you will realize it is not that easy to access information. Usually you can get a story from the inside when there is a whistleblower […] But other than that if you don’t have a lead it is actually very difficult to dig through the data. We usually - journalists here in the Philippines - get our stories from leads. There are whistleblowers – there is a starting point… It is usually an insider in a certain Government Agency. Other than that it is really very difficult to penetrate government in the Philippines, especially with data because they are not obliged to give data. (Gonzalez, 34:00)

One key indicator of how well transparency is functioning is whether leaks and tips from insiders are required to reveal corruption, or whether outsiders, the public and journalists can uncover misconduct themselves. Leakers and whistleblowers are important – and transparency provisions should include their strong legal protection – but they will always present an incomplete picture since disclosure is at the discretion of those with a personal stake in the outcomes. When insiders leak information, they may be acting for a variety of personal or political reasons. Proactive disclosure allows public interest and civil sector actors to scrutinize procurement practice from the outside, getting a more complete view.

While there seems to be a big difference in how people are able to use the data, it turns out that the governments of the Philippines and the Slovak Republic release their procurement data in a very similar manner. The Slovak EVO platform and the Philippine PhilGEPS platform are fairly similar (although EVO offers slightly better browsing functionality). But there are two critical differences in terms of data accessibility that appear to make it significantly easier for the public and civil sector to engage in meaningful oversight in the Slovak Republic.

First, data in the Slovak Republic is available in bulk, machine-readable, open formats, thanks to the hard work done by TI-Slovakia. They have created a procurement data portal by scraping all of the postings on the government e-procurement site. The TI portal provides significant oversight functionality that the government site doesn’t. It allows users to view, sort, visualize and explore procurement data and to access the data in bulk by downloading a spreadsheet (csv).

We think that for data to be meaningfully open it should always be available machine-readable, open formats and downloadable in bulk. However, neither the governments of the Philippines nor the Slovak Republic do it. However, in the Slovak Republic, TI-Slovakia essentially provides what should be a government service: releasing open and accessible government data. In the Philippines no civil society actors are filling this gap, and the oversight community is constrained by the limitations of government data releases.

Second, in the Slovak Republic all contracts must be in a central online repository for them to have the force of law. This enables observers and watchdogs to compare actual contracts (and modifications to those contracts) with the specifications, which were detailed in the original request for bids. Post-award manipulation is a perennial vulnerability in procurement, and proactively publishing contracts is an important first step in limiting this behavior.

Post-reforms, the Slovak Republic experienced a significant shift in the civil sector and oversight ecosystem, which have not occurred following the reforms in the Philippines. The fact that the data is truly accessible to the public in Slovakia (thanks to TI-Slovakia!), appears to be a major distinction between the two cases with some explanatory power about why the there has been greater public engagement in oversight in the Slovak Republic than there has been in the Philippines.