Exposing Procurement Corruption: Ten Questions to Ask

No government activity is more susceptible to corruption than public procurement. The process by which government decides what to buy and from whom is lengthy, technically complex, and riddled with decision points that give procurement officers enormous discretion.  Oversight is thus especially difficult.  Moreover, because so much money is involved, the temptations procurement offers corrupt public servants and their private sector accomplices are particularly great.  Some developed countries spend as much as one-third of their budget on the purchase of public works, goods, and services, and the available data suggests the figure may even be higher in developing countries.

With so much at risk, it is no wonder that there has been an explosion of material on fighting corruption in public procurement.  The OECD, the World Bank, the European Union, and Transparency International have each issued a slew of publications on how to prevent corruption in public procurement, and the latest edition of Matthew’s anticorruption bibliography catalogues more than 100 articles, pamphlets, and books by academics, think tanks, and advocacy organizations on corruption in public procurement. Indeed, the amount of material is so overwhelming that reporters, civil society groups, and even parliamentarians and government auditors may be discouraged from pursuing allegations of procurement corruption.  For how does one know where to start?

Below are ten simple, straightforward questions that provide a starting-point.  They can be asked about any government purchase:  from “off-the-shelf” items like pencils and paper to a new road or bridge to the acquisition of customized IT systems.  The answers will provide a telling first indication of whether the procurement merits further scrutiny.  Continue reading

Building a Cadre of Procurement Professionals

Government purchases of goods, services, and public works constitute anywhere from 15 percent to as much as 40 percent of total public spending, and thus any government committed to fighting corruption should make procurement a priority. Corruption sneaks into public procurement in many ways in the long and often complex chain of events in the process: from identifying a need to designing the specifications for meeting the need to the award of a contract and the delivery of the final product.  While stepping up procurement audits and investigations can weed procurement out of corruption, far better is to keep it from infecting the process in the first place.

For that a government needs a cadre of well-trained public procurement professionals dedicated to ensuring their country receives the best value for every dollar it spends building roads or acquiring high tech communications equipment or simply buying pencils and papers for schools. Procurement professionals must be knowledgeable about law, finance, engineering, project management, economics, and of course corruption, and while some of that learning can be picked up through intensive on-the-job training programs, building a first-rate, technically sophisticated cadre of procurement specialists takes more than putting those with a generalist degree through a few o-j-t courses.  It requires, as Francis Fukuyama explains in discussing how the public services of Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom’s public services were built, university courses that teach prospective public servants basic analytic skills and tools, knowledge that simply cannot be mastered in a week or even several week intensive training course.

For the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime I have been asked to suggest what a curriculum leading to an undergraduate degree in public procurement might look like.  In “Building Sustainable Capacity in Public Procurement,” Peter Trepte of Nottingham University’s Public Procurement Research Group explains that teaching public servants what the procurement law is and how to comply with it is not enough.  To conduct fair, effective, and efficient procurements requires an interdisciplinary course of study that trains students in how to identify procurement needs, plan procurement activities, assess market conditions, manage relations with bidders and contractors, and administer contracts.

Below is my effort to follow Professor Trepte’s advice.   Comments are most welcome. Continue reading

For Foreign Aid and Fighting Corruption, Less Is More

The US government learned many hard lessons from its military occupation of Iraq. With respect to corruption in security and reconstruction projects, one of the clearest lessons—emphasized by the 2013 final report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), among others—was that smaller, short-term projects were more effective, and less susceptible to massive and debilitating corruption, than big, long-term projects. Indeed, a month after publication of the SIGIR report, Paul Cooksey, the Deputy Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, testified to Congress that large amounts of money should not be injected into an unstable region without enough well-trained, experienced personnel to oversee it. The better strategy, he argued, was to use small projects that could be more tightly managed. For example, one battalion commander in Iraq mentioned that greenhouse and drip irrigation projects—which allowed farmers to use water more efficiently and grow vegetables year-round—were small enough to be easily monitored to completion. This may not be as grandiose as building massive infrastructure, but it can still have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Yet despite the clarity and consistency of this message, it has not been heeded in Afghanistan. Continue reading

Leniency Agreements Under Brazil’s Clean Company Act: Are They a Good Idea?

Brazil’s 2013 Clean Company Act, the country’s first anti-bribery statute applicable to companies, has grabbed Brazilians’ attention due to its recurrent use in the context of the so-called Car Wash operation. The Clean Company Act has provided the main legal basis for Brazilian public authorities (especially federal prosecutors) to sign leniency agreements with construction corporations whose top executives stand accused of bribing officials in exchange for contracts from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil giant. Under the Act, Brazilian authorities may enter into a leniency agreement as long as the company admits its participation in the illicit act, ceases any further participation, provides full restitution for damage caused, and cooperates fully and permanently with the ongoing investigation. In exchange, the fines can be reduced by up to two-thirds and, more importantly, the cooperating company may be exempted from judicial and administrative sanctions, including suspension or debarment from public contracts. Over the course of the Car Wash investigation, Brazilian authorities have already signed five leniency agreements with some of Brazil’s largest engineering firms, and at least twelve more companies are currently negotiating leniency deals with Brazilian authorities.

But do these sorts of leniency agreements provide for sufficient deterrence of corrupt behavior? And are they consistent with the interest in punishing those companies that have committed a serious crime? Those who defend Brazil’s increasing use of leniency agreements emphasize that a similar approach has proven to be effective in countries like the United States, one of the most successful countries in the world in the fight against corruption. Indeed, the leniency agreements authorized by the Clean Company Act were modeled on the Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) used by US authorities in white-collar criminal law enforcement. However, Brazil is following the US model precisely at a time when the widespread use of NPAs and DPAs is becoming more controversial, in part because of concerns that these sorts of agreements fail to deter economic crimes and allow high-ranking executives to escape accountability for their crimes (for a summary of the criticisms of those agreements, see here and here). Perhaps more importantly, even if one views the US experience with NPAs and DPAs as successful overall, there are several reasons why this model might be more problematic in the Brazilian context. Continue reading

Why Not Citizen Suits for Corrupt Procurements?

Beginning from the simple and indisputable premise that those harmed by corruption should be able to do something about it, Professor Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences develops a novel approach to attacking the ubiquitous problem of corruption in public procurement.  To appreciate it, take an example.  Suppose government awards a contract to a company to build a road so farmers in the region can more easily and cheaply bring their products to market.  Suppose further that thanks to corruption the road is either never built or it quickly becomes impassable.  Who suffers most from the construction company’s failure to perform the road building contract?  Who has the greatest stake in remedying the wrong? 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

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 2

This post is the second half of my attempt to summarize the commitments (or lack thereof) in the country statements of the 41 countries that attended last week’s London Anticorruption Summit, in four areas highlighted by the Summit’s final Communique:

  1. Increasing access to information on the true beneficial owners of companies, and possibly other legal entities, perhaps through central registers;
  2. Increasing transparency in public procurement;
  3. Strengthening the independence and capacity of national audit institutions, and publicizing audit results (and, more generally, increasing fiscal transparency in other ways); and
  4. Encouraging whistleblowers, strengthening their protection from various forms or retaliation, and developing systems to ensure that law enforcement takes prompt action in response to whistleblower complaints.

These are not the only subjects covered by the Communique and discussed in the country statements. (Other topics include improving asset recovery mechanisms, facilitating more international cooperation and information sharing, joining new initiatives to fight corruption in sports, improving transparency in the extractive sector through initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, additional measures to fight tax evasion, and several others.) I chose these four partly because they seemed to me of particular importance, and partly because the Communique’s discussion of these four areas seemed particularly focused on prompting substantive legal changes, rather than general improvements in existing mechanisms.

Plenty of others have already provided useful comprehensive assessments of what the country commitments did and did not achieve. My hope is that presenting the results of the rather tedious exercise of going through each country statement one by one for the language on these four issues, and presenting the results in summary form, will be helpful to others out there who want to try to get a sense of how the individual country commitments do or don’t match up against the recommendations in the Communique. My last post covered Afghanistan–Malta; today’s post covers the remaining country statements, Mexico–United States: Continue reading