23 March 2021 –
In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session against corruption (UNGASS 2021) in June and in the last crucial weeks of negotiations on the political declaration, the UNCAC Coalition organized an informal webinar for delegates on Open Contracting on 12 March 2021, which was attended by delegates from close to 30 countries.
Co-hosted by the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP), and co-sponsored by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Nigeria, the aim of the session was to inform delegates about the importance of targeted and focused language on open contracting and procurement transparency for inclusion in the political declaration.
Overall public procurement spending exceeds USD 13 trillion per year. With procurement being governments’ foremost corruption risk, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these risks and highlighted the need to ensure full transparency of government contracting, including in times of crisis.
Kristen Robinson, Head of Advocacy at Open Contracting Partnership presented best practices for open contracting, including the need for collected data to be ‘clean’, structured and organized in order to draw any real meaning out of it, and the importance of proactive and timely data, among other aspects. With 57% of foreign bribery cases involving a public contract, it is crucial that procurement features in the UNGASS discussions, and enters the room loud and clear. The OCP has three principal asks from the UNGASS, which can use the power of open contracting to prevent corruption:
- Ensure the game-changing principle of open data and data-driven monitoring in procurement;
- Obtain member state commitments to monitor outcomes from public procurement;
- Mandate an expert group to update UNODC guidance to reflect latest in technology, data and digital matters
Dr. Orji Ogbonnaya Orji, the Executive Secretary of EITI Nigeria, shared his national perspective, highlighting that low standards for public procurement negatively impact social infrastructure, from roads to schools and hospitals. However, Nigeria has been working to reform its national procurement system. The Nigeria Open Contracting Portal (NOCOPO), conceptualized by the Bureau of Public Procurement with the participation of civil society organizations, aims to enhance transparency, accountability and fairer competition in the Nigerian business sector. As a recipient of the global Government Innovation Award, the initiative has been recognized as a good practice by the Open Contracting Partnership.
Sanan Mirzoyev, Anti-Corruption Programme Adviser for Southern Africa with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (UK) identified three key lessons learned from the experience of using open contracting in public procurement in South Africa. Firstly, ambitions to transition to more transparent procurement practices must be met by government compliance, which is crucial for achieving commitments and results. Secondly, the quality of data being collected and inputted into electronic systems is dependent on the individuals operating behind them: while technology is a tool, the people are the asset. Lastly, quantity should not trump quality in terms of data collection – large document archives may mean losing sight of more important findings in the midst of all the data.
The session ended with a round of Q&A, where delegates discussed difficulties in getting their governments to make strong commitments on procurement transparency and open contracting.
The session highlighted that the UNGASS’ political declaration should embrace civil society engagement, the presence of corruption at different stages of the procurement process, and needs to make clear reference to the important links with beneficial ownership, with procurement data as well as beneficial ownership information being freely accessible to the public.
Moreover, while it is important that civil society and local communities understand that it is in their interest to know where the money trail leads and to advocate for more transparency in practice, adhering to high standards of public procurement is not as difficult or expensive as governments may perceive it to be: The economic long-term benefits, such as greater efficiency and cost savings for governments, reduced waste and corruption, as well as increased competition for government contracts, are a strong selling point.