Anyone remember the London Anti-Corruption Summit last May? It seems like a long, long time ago now, but it was a big deal for us when 14 countries stepped forward at the Summit to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard to open, share, and track all data and documents coming from the billions of dollars that they are spending on public contracting and procurement each year.
One year later, how well have these countries have followed through on their commitments, and how much of a difference open contracting has made in combating corruption in public procurement? After all, it is government’s number one corruption risk; it’s where money, opacity, and government discretion collide.
The news is generally positive: the Summit commitments appear to have promoted genuine progress toward more open contracting in many of those countries, and the preliminary evidence indicates that such moves help reduce procurement corruption.
More than half of the 14 countries who made commitments to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard have made coherent steps towards open contracting. Colombia, Mexico, and the UK have all started to publish data in the Open Contracting Data Standard, while Argentina and Italy have made steps towards implementing open contracting. Even Afghanistan and Nigeria—which then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron called “fantastically corrupt” on an open mic—have made notable progress. In Nigeria, the Bureau of Public Procurement is leading the development of the government’s open contracting portal and civil society groups across Nigeria providing input on information and functions that would be most useful to them–and scrutinizing public contracting data to evaluate the delivery of basic services. The Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative has announced plans to publish an open contracting platform as well for deals in the oil sector. Afghanistan, meanwhile, has taken steps to open up its procurement data for the first time, and the government’s new national procurement authority website lists debarred companies as well as bids and awards. (For more information about what specific countries are doing, see here.)
There are laggards, of course. Four of the 14 countries (Bulgaria, Ghana, Malta, and the US) have made little to no progress towards their open contracting commitments. Progress has not yet been evident in Georgia either, but the government is apparently on the verge of announcing more substantial work on open contracting.
The more important question, though, is whether the move toward open contracting has made a difference in tackling corruption. It still too early to offer anything like a definitive answer, as most governments are neither publishing nor analyzing fully open, machine-readable procurement information. But the evidence that we do have is promising.
Take, for example, Ukraine. Though the country faces many corruption-related difficulties, its ProZorro procurement reforms appear to have made a positive difference: The government has been able to save an estimated 10% on the planned budget (over $800m and counting) and has become smarter about its planned procurement spending. From January 2015 to March 2017, the average number of bids per tender rose by 15%, and the number of unique suppliers grew by 45%. A USAID survey conducted with more than 300 entrepreneurs in May 2016 found that business confidence in Ukraine’s public procurement has increased — the majority of respondents believed ProZorro reduces corruption partially (53%) or significantly (25%). We don’t have the data from other country reforms yet but, if you’re doing open contracting properly, it should be possible to get it. Next year, we want to be able to cite the evidence from several other countries too.
My organization, the Open Contracting Partnership, is retooling its strategy in light of the positive momentum for open contracting that the London Summit generated. We’re simultaneously working to catalyze change on the ground, while also looking to gather and share hard evidence of what works (and to avoid repeating what doesn’t). It’s only when the data gets used as part of a coherent reform program and feedback mechanisms involving civil society, business and government that more systemic changes get adopted and integrated.
We also need other forms of transparency – for example, the disclosure of the real beneficial owners of companies and that information then getting used. Together with a coalition of organizations such as Transparency International, Global Witness and OpenCorporates, we’ve supported the first public registry of beneficial ownership (OpenOwnership.org). Data from Slovakia, Ukraine, and the UK will be the first to enter the register.
We’d like to see the momentum on open contracting carried over to the G20. Open contracting gets a nod from the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group but should be central to its work on infrastructure and digital government. In an encouraging development, this year’s G20 under the German presidency is prioritizing a new partnership with Africa, and as part of that, countries such as Nigeria are showing how open contracting can change attitudes in government. G20 countries—particularly Germany—need to set an example by implementing open contracting at home.
So, the move toward open contracting that the Summit helped inspire is something of a success. It is definitely not “job done,” but the progress that we’ve seen so far is enough to keep us inspired and driven to push forward. We hope that this time next year we will be able to point to many more countries like Ukraine, where the government got its act together, worked across civil society and business, and put open public contracting to work — detecting and deterring corruption as part and parcel of a more radical transformation in the way that government does business.