One of today’s more promising global anticorruption movements is The Open Contracting Partnership. A venture that brings together organizations as different as the World Bank, the Philippines Government Procurement Policy Board, and Oxfam, its goal is to open government contracting to greater transparency and public participation. As many studies show (click here, here, and here for recent examples), corruption infects all stages of the procurement process — from skewing the specifications to favor a single firm to rigging the tendering process to rampant cheating in contract performance. And as many of these same studies argue, less secrecy and more public involvement in the process is one way to curb it.
The Partnership has taken important steps towards realizing these objectives since its launch in October 2012. It has developed global principles governing contract openness, created a standard format for reporting data on government contracts, collated information on open contracting in the award of natural resource concessions and land, assembled a quality staff and advisory board, and a fostered an enthusiastic global community of practice.
All this is not only welcome but laudable, and the organizers and supporters of the Partnership are to be congratulated for the initiative. Now that the Partnership is firmly established, however, it is time to address two questions it has so far avoided.
The first question is: Are there ever circumstances in which less disclosure of information about a contract – involving either its formation, process of award, or execution – serves the public interest? A reading of the material on the Partnership’s web site would suggest the answer is “no, never,” that more transparency is good and even more transparency is better.
But that answer is wrong. As procurement professionals and students of public procurement know, there are indeed circumstances where less disclosure is in the public’s best interest. One example is when government tenders for construction projects. Disclosure of who is likely to bid, how much is budgeted for the procurement, what firm won the bid, and at what price helps bidders fix the price at levels far above what it would be in an unconstrained market. (Click here for an authoritative explanation of why.) A second example would be revealing government’s plans for road construction. If it were known that the government was considering building a road from point A to point B or upgrading an existing stretch of highway it could provoke land speculation if not outright grabbing.
There are two reasons the Partnership needs to be clear that situations exist where transparency in the contracting process is harmful: to maintain its credibility within the procurement community and to avoid contributing to bad policy. Opening up the contracting process promises to be a long, difficult battle; for those who profit from opaque procedures can be counted to vigorously resist reform. The Partnership needs all the allies it can muster, and two important ones are procurement professionals and students of the procurement process. It will be easier to garner their support if the Partnership advances an intellectually credible transparency policy rather than one than can be dismissed as naïve and uninformed.
The second reason for offering a more nuanced view of transparency in the procurement process is the risk it could lead to bad policy. Lawmakers might write into procurement statutes provisions mandating transparency in circumstances, like infrastructure procurement, where the harm would outweigh the benefits.
Transparency is a powerful rallying cry, and one can understand why the Partnership might think any qualification would dilute its potency. But the transparency message can be crafted in ways that preserves its power while acknowledging the nuances involved.
The second question it is time for the Partnership to address is public participation. As its web site acknowledges, transparency is the first of two steps required to curb abuses in public contracting. Once information about the contracting process is revealed, there must be someone with the time and expertise to assess what has been disclosed, identify instances of misconduct, and ensure action is taken. This is the role the Partnership assigns to the public. “Open contracting truly comes alive,” the Partnership explains, “when champions change policies, institutions and practices.”
But who does the Partnership expect will be these champions? Citizen volunteers? Will they be willing to devote the time required to monitor contracts of any significant duration? Will they invest the time required to learn how to monitor more complex contracts?
NGO staff is another possible source of champions. They can be trained and, if paid, time will not be a problem. The issue here is sustainability. Who will fund the NGO? In the Philippines the NGO Road Watch gained international acclaim with its successful monitoring of all phases of highway construction contracts — from planning and project identification to construction, auditing and monitoring. Yes, despite the plaudits it lost its funding and had to suspend work.
The Partnership has promised a robust research program “documenting what is working and what is not . . .[and tracking] . . . the spread and effectiveness of open contracting practices in terms of uptake, changing attitudes and impact . . . .” As a wide-ranging review for DfID concluded, the leap from open data to its use in bring about change is not an easy one to make, and the Partnership should make research on who will take that leap and how a priority.
The Open Contracting Partnership is an important initiative in the fight against corruption. To realize its ambitious objectives, the Partnership needs to be able to produce solid answers to these and the many other questions likely to arise as it continues to promote openness and public participation in government contracting.