Guest Post: Did the London Summit Make a Difference to Open Contracting? Does Open Contracting Make a Difference for Tackling Procurement Corruption?

Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership, provides today’s guest post:

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. Continue reading

Guest Post: Is Sunlight Really the Best Disinfectant? Evidence on Procurement Transparency from Europe

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mihály Fazekas, of the University of Cambridge and the Government Transparency Institute, who contributes the following guest post:

Public procurement, which accounts for roughly one-third of government spending in OECD countries and up to 50% in developing economies, is well-known as an area associated with high corruption risk. Hence, it is hardly a surprise that a range of policy recommendations from international organizations (such as the OECD), civil society networks (such as the Open Contracting Data Standard), and research projects (e.g. Digiwhist) have emerged to promote anticorruption in public procurement. And one of the most popular prescriptions for achieving this goal is increased transparency. Transparency, of course, can mean different things. For purposes of the discussion here, we will follow the OECD and World Bank in defining “public procurement transparency” as entailing the timely, free, and accurate publication of public procurement documents in a central e-procurement portal in a machine-readable format, with this publication requirement applying to every major step of the contracting process, and disclosing all key characteristics of the tender and contract. (For a comprehensive data template see here).

Research suggests that this sort of transparency does make a difference in terms of bidder numbers and composition. Yet it remains an open question whether public procurement transparency is necessary or sufficient for controlling corruption in public procurement. Indeed, if one looks at a sample of European countries’ public procurement transparency and their suspected corruption risks, one finds a surprising result: the best governed countries in Europe have the lowest levels of transparency in public procurement. Continue reading

In the Excitement of the New, Let’s Not Neglect the Tried and True

In my two posts last week (here and here), I attempted to go through all of the 41 country statements submitted by the participants in the London Anticorruption Summit held earlier this month, to see what those statements had to say about four specific issue areas highlighted by the Summit’s joint Communique: (1) accessibility (and possibly transparency) of beneficial ownership information for companies and other legal entities, (2) public procurement transparency, (3) independence, effectiveness, and transparency of national audit institutions, and (4) whistleblower protection (and encouragement). I didn’t originally intend to say much more about this, other than putting the information out there for others to examine, but on writing up the summaries, I was struck by the following observation:

Of the four issue areas I picked out–all of which, again, were prominently featured in the Communique–I would characterize two (beneficial ownership and, to a somewhat lesser extent, procurement transparency) as relatively “new” topics that have generated a lot of excitement. (This is clearly the case for beneficial ownership; public procurement transparency has been on the agenda for much longer, though I put it in this category because a lot of the focus of discussion in this area has been on relatively new initiatives like e-procurement and the Open Contracting Data Standard.) The other two issues I chose to highlight–independent and competent audits of government programs, and adequate protection of (and, preferably, affirmative encouragement for) whistleblowers–have been part of the conversation for considerably longer, though that doesn’t mean we’ve yet seen anywhere near as much movement on either of those issues as we’d like. And, compared to the newness and (relative) sexiness of topics like beneficial ownership registries and e-procurement initiatives, whistleblower protection and audits seem a bit humdrum. (Audits especially. Even I get bored when I hear the word “audit,” and I happen to think they’re really important.)

The thing that struck me, when going through the country statements, was the dramatic lopsidedness of the attention lavished on beneficial ownership and procurement transparency (to say nothing of other topics I didn’t cover, like corruption in sports and improved asset recovery mechanisms), compared to the relative neglect of country commitments in the areas of improving national audit institutions and whistleblower protections. Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 1

Well, between the ICIJ release of the searchable Panama Papers/Offshore Leaks database, the impeachment of President Rousseff in Brazil, and the London Anticorruption Summit, last week was quite a busy week in the world of anticorruption. There’s far too much to write about, and I’ve barely had time to process it all, but let me try to start off by focusing a bit more on the London Summit. I know a lot of our readers have been following it closely (and many participated), but quickly: The Summit was an initiative by David Cameron’s government, which brought together leaders and senior government representatives from over 40 countries to discuss how to move forward in the fight against global corruption. Some had very high hopes for the Summit, others dismissed it as a feel-good political symbolism, and others were somewhere in between.

Prime Minister Cameron stirred things up a bit right before the Summit started by referring to two of the countries in attendance – Afghanistan and Nigeria – as “fantastically corrupt,” but the kerfuffle surrounding that alleged gaffe has already received more than its fair share of media attention, so I won’t say more about it here, except that it calls to mind the American political commentator Michael Kinsley’s old chestnut about how the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.) I’m going to instead focus on the main documents coming out of the Summit: The joint Communique issued by the Summit participants, and the individual country statements. There’s already been a lot of early reaction to the Communique—some fairly upbeat, some quite critical (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). A lot of the Communique employs fairly general language, and a lot of it focuses on things like strengthening enforcement of existing laws, improving international cooperation and information exchange, supporting existing institutions and conventions, and exploring the creation of new mechanisms. All that is fine, and some of it might actually turn out to be consequential, but to my mind the most interesting parts of the Communique are those that explicitly announce that intention of the participating governments to take pro-transparency measures in four specific areas:

  1. Gathering more information on the true beneficial owners of companies (and possibly other legal entities, like trusts), perhaps through a central public registry—which might be available only to law enforcement, or which might be made available to the general public (see Communique paragraph 4).
  2. Increasing transparency in public contracting, including making public procurement open by default, and providing usable and timely open data on public contracting activities (see Communique paragraph 9). (There’s actually a bit of an ambiguity here. When the Communique calls for public procurement to be “open by default,” it could be referring to greater transparency, or it could be calling for the use of open bidding processes to increase competition. Given the surrounding context, it appears that the former meaning was intended. The thrust of the recommendation seems to be increasing procurement transparency rather than increasing procurement competition.)
  3. Increasing budget transparency through the strengthening of genuinely independent supreme audit institutions, and the publication of these institutions’ findings (see Communique paragraph 10).
  4. Strengthening protections for whistleblowers and doing more to ensure that credible whistleblower reports prompt follow-up action from law enforcement (see Communique paragraph 13).

Again, that’s far from all that’s included in the Communique. But these four action areas struck me as (a) consequential, and (b) among the parts of the Communique that called for relatively concrete new substantive action at the domestic level. So, I thought it might be a useful (if somewhat tedious) exercise to go through each of the 41 country statements to see what each of the Summit participants had to say in each of these four areas. This is certainly not a complete “report card,” despite the title of this post, but perhaps it might be a helpful start for others out there who are interested in doing an assessment of the extent of actual country commitments on some of the main action items laid out in the Communique. So, here goes: a country-by-country, topic-by-topic, quick-and-dirty summary of what the Summit participants declared or promised with respect to each of these issues. (Because this is so long, I’m going to break the post into two parts. Today I’ll give the info for Afghanistan–Malta, and Thursday’s post will give the info for Mexico–United States). Continue reading

Shedding Sunlight on Procurement

In a previous post, I extolled the virtues of Big Data in the fight against corruption, including in the important realm of government procurement. From the UK to Georgia to the Czech Republic, government procurement agencies have been collaborating with civil society groups to analyze their data, uncovering inefficiencies that range from the mundane to the outright corrupt. Governments are not alone: international development agencies like the World Bank are embarking on similar projects.

But there’s a problem. Big Data needs lots of data to work, entailing a high degree of government transparency and massive disclosures — sometimes called Open Government — that are sometimes at odds with the goals of anticorruption. In the case of government procurement, public data watchers need to know which firms bid for the project, at what price, and who won on what terms before they can play a useful watchdog role. However, as Rick has pointed out on this blog, public disclosure rules in procurement has the perverse effect of enabling private collusion. Cartels of contractors can agree amongst themselves to inflate their prices and select which among them will receive the contract, and are able to enforce their shady agreement because, of course, all offers are public.

Rick’s concerns seem to be directly implicated by the newly-proposed Open Contracting Data Standard, a push to “enhance and promote disclosure and participation in public contracting.” The project essentially asks every procurement agency in the world to upload their contracting documents onto the internet in a standardized manner that would encourage public oversight, including through the use of Big Data tools. So, is the push for open government procurement data doomed to backfire, creating collusion where perhaps it did not even exist before? Fortunately not. The increased risk of collusion is completely outweighed by the potential for the use of Big Data and other civil society monitoring techniques. Continue reading

Big Data and Anticorruption: A Great Fit

There is no shortage of buzz about Big Data in the anticorruption world. It’s everywhere — from public efforts like Transparency International’s public procurement analysis to cutting-edge private-sector FCPA compliance programs implemented by Ernst & Young. TI has blogged about Big Data and corruption, with titles like “Can Big Data Solve the World’s Problems, Including Corruption?” and “The Potential of Fighting Corruption Through Data Mining.” Ernst & Young’s conclusion is more definite: “Anti-Corruption Compliance Now Requires Big Data Analytics.”

In previous posts, contributors to this blog have written about how the anticorruption community was excited about social media-style apps (“crowdsourcing”) in anticorruption efforts. Apps like iPaidABribe allow citizens to report their encounters with corrupt officials, generating a fertile data set for anticorruption activists. Big Data is a related effort: activists can mine huge amounts of data for patterns that reveal corrupt activity, making it a powerful tool for transparency. However, as the name suggests, Big Data requires massive amounts of data in order to be useful.The anticorruption community should throw its weight behind proposals to open up data sets for Big Data analysis. As with crowdsourced anticorruption efforts, the excitement surrounding Big Data could quickly turn into disappointment unless this tool can be integrated into the broader anticorruption effort. Continue reading