The Costs of Procurement Gaming: Evidence from the Czech Republic

Like any complex bureaucratic process, a public procurement system can be “gamed,” its rules manipulated to defeat the system’s purpose.  Procurement systems are particularly susceptible to gaming for they are designed to advance two objectives in conflict.  One is to allow governments to buy what they need when they need it quickly and easily.  The second is to prevent fraud and corruption from infecting the system by imposing elaborate safeguards at every step in the purchasing process – at the cost of making it slow, cumbersome, and costly.  The pressures to privilege the first at the expense of the second are many: the agency needs a replacement part immediately; every day the road is left unrepaired traffic snarls and citizens’ patience tested; overworked staff don’t have time to conduct a full-blown procurement.  The result is that procurement officers are always on the lookout for ways to bypass, or “game,” the rules that slow the process down.

One way is to attach an unrealistically low estimate on what the item to be procured will cost.  If the estimated price is below a certain amount, procurement officers can avoid conducting a full-fledged, open tender.  Below the threshold, in many systems $1 million, procurement officers need not prepare a lengthy, formal tender document, advertise it widely for a several week period, constitute a technical committee to evaluate the bids, and follow the many other rules for open, competitive procurements. They can instead use streamlined procedures — variously termed “shopping” or a “request for” or “invitation to submit” quotes—which allow them to call a few suppliers for a price quotation and take the lowest one offered.

No one with experience in public procurement doubts that threshold gaming sometimes occurs.  The questions are how often and why.  Do procurement staff regularly underestimate the contract price to push it below the threshold and avoid the panoply of procurement rules that would otherwise have to be applied?  Do staff do so to secure desperately needed items faster and cheaper?  For other legitimate ends?   Or to further corrupt deals?

New research now settles these questions – at least for the Czech Republic. Moreover, in answering them the researchers use techniques that others can employ to analyze the same questions in their countries. Continue reading

Guest Post: Anticorruption Enforcement Is the Key to Democratic Consolidation–Not the Other Way Around

GAB is delighted to welcome Cristina Nicolescu-Waggonner, visiting professor of Political Science at Pomona College and Scripps College, Claremont, to contribute the following guest post, drawn from material in her new book, No Rule of Law, No Democracy:

It is fashionable to argue that the only way to root out systemic corruption is to establish a political system characterized by genuine democratic accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, corruption – specifically the conflicts of interest of political and judicial leaders – does not allow for this sort of development. True, there may be democracy, but in the presence of widespread corruption it will remain in a perpetual state of unconsolidated democracy, without true rule of law. And in such weak democracies, the electoral process stimulates rather than discourages corruption: Eager to win and short on cash, politicians make deals with businesses and misappropriate public funds to finance campaigns, a vicious cycle that starts political tenure with illicit means. Different from lobbying, this illegal activity puts the breaks on rule of law reform. Corrupt politicians, afraid of retribution, do not reform or establish enforcement mechanisms: supervisory commissions, integrity agencies, anticorruption institutions, genuinely independent courts, whistleblower protection, etc. This dilemma is exemplified by the Czech Republic, which does well on various international democracy and rule-of-law indexes, but in fact is a corruption hotbed, with politicians, members of the judiciary, and business people involved in a web of misappropriation of public funds—partly for personal enrichment, but more importantly for election and re-election. The same vicious cycle is prevalent in new democracies all over the world, from Brazil to Romania to South Korea to Mexico to Tunisia: Corruption negatively affects the process of democratization and stalls it before democracy can have a chance to fight corruption.

So, what can we do? Continue reading