Guest Post: Promoting Procurement Transparency During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Brazil

Today’s guest post is from Guilherme France, the Research Coordinator at Transparency International Brazil (TI Brazil), together with TI Brazil researchers Maria Dominguez and Vinicius Reis.

While the new coronavirus has slashed through Brazil at alarming rates since March, an old problem has undermined the government’s response: corruption. A considerable portion of the government money spent to deal with the pandemic may have already been lost to corruption and waste. To give just a few examples: in Amazonas the state government bought inadequate medical ventilators from a wine store; In Santa Catarina, the government spent over US$5 million on 200 ventilators that were never delivered; and in Rio de Janeiro, fraud led to losses of more than 700 million reais in the hiring of a company to construct emergency hospitals, most of which were never delivered.

As many have pointed out, the corruption risk in procurement is heightened during an emergency, because traditional procurement rules are relaxed or circumvented to allow goods and services to be purchased in a timely fashion. In Brazil, the problem is compounded by a lack of centralization—with over 5,000 independent government entities (federal institutions, states, and municipalities) competing with each other and international buyers for the same equipment.

In this challenging context, efforts to increase the transparency of government procurement and to promote social accountability are essential. To promote greater integrity and transparency in COVID-19 emergency procurement, last May Transparency International Brazil (TI Brazil) and the Federal Court of Accounts jointly published a set of Transparency Recommendations in Public Procurement. These recommendations inspired a methodology for assessing how well government entities were implementing transparency mechanisms to make emergency procurement data available in their websites. (The assessment method examines four dimensions: (1) the presentation of detailed information on suppliers and contracts, (2) the publication of data in open formats that allow complex analysis, comparison, and reuse; (3) information on the government’s own legislation regarding emergency procurement and related matters; and (4) the quality and availability of channels for citizens to make Freedom of Information requests and report on irregularities related to COVID-19 procurement, as well as the existence of committees, with civil society organizations, to monitor emergency procurement.) Using this method, TI Brazil has created an index on Transparency Ranking on Efforts Against COVID-19, which ranks government entities on a 0-100 scale and also assigns a designation of Poor, Bad, Regular, Good or Great, depending on how well the entity performs on the four dimensions of transparency described above. The initial index included an assessment of 53 local governments (states and state capitals), and monthly evaluations have been undertaken since.

The results are impressive so far. Between the first and the third rounds, for instance, every local government analyzed improved its score, and in the most recent round, 33 governments (20 capitals and 13 states) earned a transparency grade of “Good” or “Great”. The average scores increased from 46 to 85 (capitals) and from 59 to 85 (states).

Two factors contributed to this significant improvement. First, widespread media coverage of the assessment results (on both traditional and social media) put pressure on government officials to improve their scores. Second, TI Brazil committed to working with all of the evaluated entities, answering questions and advising authorities on how to achieve the highest transparency standards. And roughly 90% of the 53 assessed entities did indeed contact TI Brazil to discuss how to improve their performance.

Unfortunately, the progress at the state and local level does not appear to have been matched at the national level. The most recent assessment, this past July, considered the Federal Government’s transparency in COVID-19 emergency procurement, and found gave the federal government a score of 49.3 (“Regular”), one of the lowest ratings when compared to the states and cities. Some of the reasons for this relatively low score are the fact that relevant information about federal emergency procurement is not centralized, but rather dispersed across a number of different websites, and some of those websites, such as that of the Ministry of Health, provide very little information, and do not provide data in open format.

Part of the agenda going forward, then, should include efforts to improve transparency at the federal level. There are two other important next steps for this initiative:

  • First, we need to expand the number of entities assessed. As noted above, Brazil has over 5,000 government entities (mostly municipal governments) involved in emergency COVID-19 procurement efforts. It is not feasible for TI Brazil on its own to conduct assessments of more than a tiny fraction of these entities. But, as part of a strategy to expand these assessments throughout the country, TI Brazil has prepared a step-by-step on how to conduct and publish these evaluations. It is aimed at civil society organizations, students, academics and local activists, which have already independently evaluated more than 70 municipalities across Brazil. We hope to engage and enable more local civil society organizations to apply the methodology, in order to drastically expand the number of small municipalities analyzed.
  • Second, we intend to expand the assessment tool to incorporate additional types of transparency, including, for example, transparency about donations received by governments from citizens and the private sector, and transparency about the economic stimulus measures and social policies designed to minimize the impacts of the pandemic.

The overarching goal of the Transparency Ranking has been to promote government accountability for the response to the COVID-19 crisis. Citizen engagement is essential to ensure that the resources being allocated to minimize the impacts of the pandemic are spent appropriately. In a crisis like this, transparency and accountability can save lives.

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