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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.

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Transparency Case Study: Public Procurement in the Philippines

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Introduction

For our Philippine case study, we conducted interviews with members of the following groups: staff at transparency NGOs, journalists who have covered procurement, and member organizations representing business interests. Our conversations with these respondents have allowed us to develop a diverse and comprehensive picture of how transparency, information communication technology (ICT) and civil society engagement in public procurement has impacted accountability.

These conversations have provided us with a detailed picture of procurement disclosure and data use in the Philippines since the reforms in 2002. A few findings have become clear:

  • For transparency and public oversight mechanisms to work, public data must be public in more than name only. Publishing information online is not enough, especially if it is trapped in a platform that limits how journalists and watchdogs are able to use the data. PhilGEPS data is not widely used by journalists or CSOs because of artificial and needless barriers to use.
  • Monitoring this volume of proceedings requires the scale and efficiency of data backed analysis. There are thousands of procurement proceedings every year in the Philippines. For example, as of Sept. 20th, 2013, PhilGEPS, the government e-procurement platform, lists 12,346 active opportunities. The civil sector doesn’t have the capacity to monitor procurement at this scale simply by attending the Bid and Awards Committee (BAC) meetings for each one, as the law allows.
  • Without a comprehensive right to information law, access to useful data is largely at the discretion of the procurement entity and varies greatly between procuring entities, depending on the informal trust-based relationships that CSOs have developed with officials.
  • Philippine law splits jurisdiction over procurement monitoring, investigation and sanctioning between various agencies, which can leave misconduct and inefficiency unchecked.

Public procurement in the Philippines presents a salient example of how much the specifics of implementation can matter. If transparency is to enable public oversight, disclosure must meet certain conditions of accessibility and usability. Simply posting information online is not enough. For real transparency, data must be open to the public without gates, it must be published in open and machine-readable formats, and it must be available in bulk.

In mandating the use of ICTs in the procurement process and establishing a formal oversight role for civil society the Government Procurement Reform Act took important steps to reform the Philippine procurement system. These reforms, however, have been considered and implemented largely in isolation, to the detriment of procurement integrity. Civil society oversight through the observer system is a manual and resource-intensive task that doesn’t capitalize on the economies of scale and efficiencies that ICTs can enable. Conversely, the integration of ICTs into public procurement has proceeded largely without including CSOs in the process or considering their needs and uses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the limited feature set of the PhilGEPS system.

Joining the dual accountability mandates of ICT enabled transparency and civil society oversight would make both more effective. Technical platform features should be designed with civil society, media, and oversight use cases in mind. Civil society organizations can serve their mandated roles as observers more effectively – and within their resource constraints – if data about all stages of the procurement process is made available. The Philippines case demonstrates that, 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.

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