Open procuring – how do other countries perform?

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Parallel to our attempt to dig deeper into procurement transparency in the US, Sunlight started another big journey to map the global landscape of procurement norms and get a sense of how other governments disclose contracting information. We hope this will help us refine exactly what and how we shall advocate for within the US, but with our growing involvement in the international open government movement we also believe it`s high time to combine our efforts with other transparency advocates – such as the Open Contracting initiative – and push for globally applicable norms and standards around contract openness. (You can read more about developing data standards for open contracting from Tim Davies here.)

Needless to say, national (as well as subnational and local) procurement regimes are way too complex and fragmented to jump to early conclusions, but even at the beginning of our research it is crystal clear that government contracting is a hot issue everywhere – which seems pretty reasonable given the fact that procurement is a key policy instrument affecting a significant amount of national GDPs. But even more importantly, contract information is also seen as the possible linkage between other politically relevant datasets such as party finance data through shadow campaign financing, aid data, national budgets or absent information on companies.

From what we can tell so far, procuring is a huge mess. Thanks to the inherent complexity and the wide range of sectors, agencies and legislation affected, most national procuring systems are highly vulnerable to waste and fraud that occur in various forms such as bribery, favoritism, collusion or custom-tailored bidding. Even though waste may not necessarily be a result of malpractice, a significant amount of tax money goes into the global trash every day due to the lack of expertise, infrastructure or real competition caused by bureaucratic burdens, over-regulation or non-transparent legislations. Or a combination of these.

Just to make things even more complicated, each of the manifestations of corruption can occur in all stages of a procurement process from needs assessment through selection and awarding to the actual contract execution. And even if it seems reasonable enough to demand for greater openness in every stage (here’s a great study on how publication could improve the quality of government decision-making and both the quality and extent of  competition for contracts), there is an obvious tension between “fairness and transparency on one hand and flexibility on the other” which explains why specific authorities and sectors tend to favour more restrictive and less competitive procedures while still acting in good faith.

For us it seems that the international norms designed to guide national legislatures and procurement agencies through the labyrinth of government contracting processes are way too obsolete to meet the requirements of our technology empowered democracies. The main international agreement related to public procurement, the Government Procurement Agreement of the WTO entered into force in 1996 (!) and has not been revised ever since (though there’s strong political will to renegotiate the original agreement). Therefore it cannot respond to recent challenges. Even in the EU – where the legal framework for public procurements is also being reviewed currently – there are serious legislative loopholes and weaknesses and the degree of competition in public procurement “varies dramatically” between different member states.

We have no intention (or capacity) to address all the possible factors that make government procuring such a corruption-prone process. At this stage Sunlight is focusing solely on data disclosure practices. Our aim is to map how procurement information is published in other national legislatures, how timely, complete and machine-readable procurement data appears to be in different countries, who are the most progressive and transparent players in the field and what are the best civil society tools out there that help the public access, analyze and digest information about government contracts.

But even that is hard to tell. Information about procurement disclosure systems is scarce and fragmented and national laws change rapidly. Out of the 48 countries with delivered commitments to the Open Government Partnership, 24 national action plans – available in English – have a hint at procurement reforms. That does not mean all the commitments are potentially groundbreaking (more on the actual commitments in a future post) but the rate is especially striking when compared to proposed reforms on other key information such as party or campaign finance data.

So how do other countries perform? According to the most recent OECD report though many member states have come a long way in disclosing information about procurements, progress is slow and there are still only a handful of countries that monitor the actual performance of procurement systems and processes based on data and benchmarks while the level of transparency is still limited in the contract management phase. Another assessment of the EBRD region shows that some countries, such as Albania, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Turkey have advanced in the development of e-Procurement solutions for public contracts and are achieving very impressive results, however the OECD study warns us that only a few countries publish information about events that occur post-award and thus allow the tracking of procurement spending.

In order to make information about data disclosure policies and practices accessible we created a master spreadsheet. The sheet is public (though not editable) and available here:

https://docs.google.com/a/sunlightfoundation.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AhECmY-CLA1hdHQ4STNKcEpoSS1RaHZ4YWFnNUxGZ2c#gid=0

And now we need your collaboration. Is information about your country’s procurement disclosure practices in the OECD report correct? (We have already found some discrepancies in the report.) If info is missing or incorrect, what is the actual publication practice? (For guiding questions, see the sheet.) Is there a case study – most preferably in English – that gives a good overview on how contracts are published in your state? Are there any open source civil society tools that use procurement data? Does your country have any suspension/debarment procedures? Is there anything else we should ask? Please contact us to verify information about your country at jkeseru@sunlightfoundation.com or klee@sunlightfoundation.com.

This is a first post in a series exploring international procuring trends. In the next few months, we’re planning to write more about citizen oversight mechanisms, the role of crowdsourcing in contract monitoring, open source tools that increase access to procurement information and also plan to give a more in-depth analysis on the OGP commitments.

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