The State of Data in Open Contracting
This past year has highlighted the global importance of public procurement. We witnessed the vulnerabilities involved as governments raced to procure PPE, ventilators, and other necessary resources at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, and now procurement of vaccines. Stories of corruption and those taking advantage of the chaos have emerged, highlighting why open contracting data is more critical than ever. So where does open contracting (OC) data currently stand? Frankly, it still has quite a way to go, but the examples are promising.
What data exists?
Starting in 2019, DG worked with Transparency International to bring together procurement data from six different countries. We transformed the data for those countries that weren’t already into OCDS format and visualized the data on a series of charts based on our OC M&E and Corruption Risk Dashboard charts. What we learned as we began this process, was that all six countries were publishing very little data in common. In fact, the only data consistently published by all six countries was if the tenders were open/competitive, direct, selective, or limited procurement, which helps show how competitive their procurement processes are. A majority of the countries also published the name of the supplier that won the contract. There is much more volatility regarding what other data points countries choose to publish. For example, some publish estimated tender prices, some publish the actual awarded amount, some publish both.
What data is still needed?
Knowing how long a tender is open for submission can be helpful as short tender periods can indicate collusion; however, this requires data on not just the tender close date, but tender start date – when it first became open. It is less common to publish this date.
Information on specific item costs are much less likely to be published (though some still are!) Through the almost twenty open contracting assessments that we have conducted, we have heard that government entities struggle to know what a reasonable price is for certain items and projects. Price lists are often outdated, and estimates often turn out wrong. In one case, a government consulted local companies for prices. When the bids they received were far lower than what they originally heard, they canceled the tender from concern over the disparities in the estimates. Publishing data on the final contract or award costs for specific items would help other departments have a better idea of what an expected budget might be. To do this, governments must publish the specific items, unit, and item cost for their contracts. This necessitates having a single list of items and units that is shared. From our experience we have learned that while item lists might be relatively common, standard units might need to be put in place, as the unit makes a big impact on how much is actually spent per item. For example, in some cases “each” is used for most items rather than specifying the number of liters of petrol purchased or total km of road being built. Improved specificity ensures we are comparing the same cost per item. In Elgeyo County, Kenya, the government is interested in this data being used to alert officials if items are purchased for more than the recommended price. Data on items also allows other key analysis, such as if the government is procuring for the same items across departments, and if bulk purchasing could reduce costs. It could also help track:
- if the same company is supplying all resources for specific items
- if certain items are not procured through open procurement, but should be;
- if there are consistent challenges with implementation for certain items.
This data can be more tedious to report. Even if it is already created as part of a contract, it is typically not available in machine readable form. Reporting this data in machine-readable formats from the start can reduce the effort to publish them.
Implementation data is another data point that is often asked for by government, civil society, media, and other stakeholders; however, it is much more rarely published. Implementation data can include if a project was completed, if it was completed on-time or delayed, and if certain suppliers consistently fail to deliver or are behind schedule – which can help get delayed projects back on track. In Makueni County, Kenya, for example, we saw a local organization URAIA use the data to identify 34 delayed projects. They then shared this information with the county government, which prompted officials to investigate and address some of the problematic projects. Implementation data can also be a resource for government procurement teams to know if certain suppliers are less reliable. We hope to increase use cases like these through the addition of low-tech solutions. For example, DG developed an SMS feature for Makueni County that sends implementation updates to public subscribers and collects feedback.
Implementation data can be more difficult to publish as it typically requires getting information from different team members – such as Monitoring and Evaluations teams – rather than just from the procurement team. Solutions might need to be adapted to meet different team members’ needs. For example, we developed an offline, mobile data collection tool for Project Management Committee members to report to, since they were more dispersed throughout the county and had more connectivity issues. Meanwhile, government officers enter data at their office computers, with more consistent connectivity, making an online web portal more suitable. All teams should be engaged in publishing processes to see how to streamline procurement, and see how publishing additional data can benefit their needs as well.
In addition to the benefits outlined here, an overall benefit is a general trust that can be built through transparency. We have heard from many government agencies the challenges that come from citizens and companies questioning how procurement decisions are made, and the scandals that are unearthed by the media. When a story gets splashed in the media, the whole government can get dragged down, but with open procurement systems, like DG’s Open Contracting Portal, which includes the corruption risk dashboard, the government can identify and address corruption quickly. Overall, open contracting can strengthen trust by showing when processes are working correctly and being followed well.
While the OCDS standard has championed the need for common identifiers – IDs that are used to identify a specific organization or item – many countries still do not use common IDs. Standardized identifiers make it possible to ensure that the same organization, such as a supplier, buyer, or item, are consistently referenced across different tenders and contracts. These identifiers enable holistic analysis and often need to be created in order for open contracting to be implemented.
One of the most common challenges to publishing procurement data is the effort needed to put the data into a machine-readable format. Ideally, online systems would create streamlined processes where forms are entered and managed within the same system that publishes the data. Where possible, in Makueni County, online forms have started to replace manual forms. However, specific physical forms are often still legally required within procurement processes. Moving the creation of these forms to a solely digital format means a legal reform. As a result, some agencies take on the task of managing both a manual and online process; however, the benefits of making data transparent and the analytics and learnings several governments have been able to gain from this work has been worth it.
What is disheartening is when governments go through the effort to collect data, and in some cases may publish the data on web pages, but do not make the data available in any easily reusable format, such as Kenya’s PPIP and South Africa’s eTenderPublication. This means that agencies cannot easily access their data, and it is more challenging to analyze the data through charts and graphs. In particular, South Africa’s site is loosely structured since it is a simple HTML page that allows various data formats, spellings, and placement of the information, which makes the data especially difficult to reuse.
We have been working to make our Open Contracting Portal, first launched in Makueni County, more flexible and customizable in order to scale to additional counties across Kenya, and hopefully to other countries as well. Additional counties and countries are starting to realize the benefits of open contracting — being able to use their own data for better decision making, building trust, and engaging more with communities they serve. We will continue to work with Makueni County and other government entities to create systems that can eventually replace manual processes, making open contracting the default, rather than the afterthought.
Photo by Joecalih via Unsplash