Getting Serious (and Technical) About Procurement Corruption: The Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project

For corruption fighters, public procurement is notable for two reasons. One, it is damnably complex. Two, it is often permeated with corrupt deals.  The latter makes it a critical target of anticorruption policy, the former a tough nut to crack. The thicket of laws, regulations, standard bidding documents, and practices that govern procurement means civil society groups advocating counter corruption measures are often at sea.  Lacking expertise on this bewildering set of rules, they can do little more than campaign in general terms for reform, urging steps like “greater transparency” or “tougher penalties” for corrupt activities.

But as anyone knows who has tried to persuade a government of uncertain will and commitment to adopt effective anticorruption policies, the devil is in the details.  Unless one has mastered the details of public procurement, a government can do all sorts of things to “improve transparency” or “crack down on procurement scofflaws” that are nothing but public relations gambits. So it is a pleasure to report that civil society organizations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have joined to form the Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project, which provides a way for staff to master the details of the public procurement and to thus be able to present detailed proposals for rooting corruption out of their nation’s public procurement systems.    Continue reading

Ceiling Prices: A Second Best Method for Attacking Bid Rigging

The procurement laws of all countries provide that with a few, narrowly drawn exceptions public contracts are to be awarded on the basis competition.  As the drafters of the UN model procurement law explain, the reason is straightforward. A competitive procurement gives all those seeking the government’s business an equal chance to win the contract while at the same time maximizing the chance that government will receive quality goods, services, or civil works at the lowest price.

The problem comes when would-be suppliers do not compete for government’s business.  When instead of each one preparing its bid independently, based on what price the firm can charge and still make a reasonable profit, the bidders sit together and agree which one will “win” the contract and at what price, a price that can sometimes be twice what it would have been were there competition.

How can a government reap the benefits of competition when bidders have rigged the bid? The answer is that it cannot.  At least not immediately.  It can, as both the U.S. Department of Justice and the OECD recommend, institute procedures that make it harder for firms to collude, and it can, again as both these agencies regularly urge, vigorously enforce laws that outlaw bid rigging.  But these measures take time to have an effect; in the meantime, a government cannot halt all procurements.  It still needs to buy computers, desks, and other goods, to contract with cleaning, fumigation, and other service providers, and it must continue to build and repair roads, damns, and other civil works.

So in the face of collusion or cartel-like behavior by its suppliers, is government powerless in the short-run?  Must it accept whatever price the bid riggers offer? No matter how high it might be? Continue reading

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: An Exercise in Underachievement–The UK’s Half-Hearted Half-Measures To Exclude Corrupt Bidders from Public Procurement

GAB is delighted to welcome back Susan Hawley, policy director of Corruption Watch, to contribute today’s guest post:

A year ago, in May 2016, the UK government gathered 43 nations around the world together at the London Anti-Corruption Summit to show their commitment to fighting corruption. The resulting declaration made a number of bold promises. One of the most important—though not one that grabbed a lot of headlines—was the announcement that corrupt bidders should not be allowed to bid for government contracts, and the associated pledge by the declaration’s signatories that they would commit to ensuring that information about final convictions would be made available to procurement bodies across borders. Seventeen signatories went further, making specific commitments to exclude corrupt bidders, while six countries pledged to establish a centralized database of convicted companies as a way of ensuring procurement bodies could access relevant information. (Three other countries committed to exploring that possibility.)

The London Anti-Corruption Summit was right to be ambitious about focus on this issue in its declaration. Research shows that the risk of losing business opportunities such as through debarment from public contracts ranks has a powerful deterrent effect—equal to that associated with individual executives facing imprisonment, and much greater than one-off penalties such as fines. Yet debarment of corrupt companies for public contracting is quite rare. The OECD Foreign Bribery report found that while 57% of the 427 foreign bribery cases it looked at spanning 15 years involved bribes to obtain government procurement contracts, only two resulted in debarment. Even the US which has a relatively advanced debarment regime and which debars or suspends around 5000 entities a year from public procurement, appears to debar very few for foreign bribery and corruption. And the UK does not appear to have ever excluded a company from public procurement, despite laws in place since 2006 that require companies convicted of corruption and other serious crimes to be excluded from public contracts.

Did the London Anti-Corruption Summit mark significant turning point in the UK’s approach to this issue? Having persuaded 43 countries to sign a declaration that included a commitment to exclude corrupt bidders, did the UK have its own bold new vision to implement that commitment domestically? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Continue reading

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