Open contracting format can clean up government procurement

Monday November 24 2014

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The World Wide Web Foundation, working with the Open Contracting Partnership through a project supported by the World Bank and Omidyar Network, has created the first-ever Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS).

The OCDS takes the format of a technical standard and a practical guide. Now governments around the world can publish their contracting and procurement data in a consistent format that will allow for easy analysis and comparison.

The OCDS will be a powerful tool to help shine some light on how trillions of dollars of public money are spent, helping to fight corruption, improve service delivery and enhance market efficiency.

The new standard was launched on November 18, 2014, at the Open Government Partnership Americas Regional Meeting in Costa Rica.

A number of governments around the world are adopting and implementing this new data standard that seeks to make public procurement more robust, transparent and accessible.

ALL CONTRACTS ONLINE

Countries at the forefront of this process include Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Paraguay.

The press release at the launch says that every year governments worldwide spend more than $9.5 trillion on procurement, but when, where and how the money is spent is, at the moment, largely invisible.

Now, for the first time, they are being given the tools to open their contracting data in a consistent, visible and accessible way.

Through the OCDS, governments will be more effective, able to drive growth, and to increase public engagement and trust in their contracting systems.

At the launch, Anne Jellema, CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation said:

"Corruption adds an estimated $2.3 trillion to the cost of government contracts every year. This new standard is a big step forward in the fight to eliminate fraud and waste in public procurement, enabling contracts to be published online in a transparent, consistent and user-friendly format so that anyone can monitor them."

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

This initiative will:

  • create a fairer system for government, resulting in more robust and reliable contract outcomes and delivering efficiency, as well as providing the potential to increase trust and transparency with the public
  • enable non-governmental organisations to access and review details of public contracting processes and to monitor spending to ensure that citizens are getting the best outcomes
  • increase transparency for businesses by allowing them to access data, analyse markets, and grow more efficient and more competitive. They can bid for government contracts on a level-playing field
  • enable the general public to analyse and interpret how and why governments are spending their money, creating the opportunity for the public to get involved in decision-making

Kenyan-born Robert Hunja, the Director for Public Integrity and Openness at the World Bank, will chair the Advisory Board of Directors of the Open Contracting Partnership.

At the launch he said, "The path to a better future for all begins with an informed citizenry. Making contracting data more open builds trust between citizens and governments and allows them work together to ensure public resources are spent in the best way possible.”

Hunja, one of Africa’s own sons, was at some point seconded by the World Bank to Treasury to set up the Public Procurement Oversight Authority in Kenya. He now carries our flag high on the global stage.

There is no better recognition that we can give to Robert than African countries' joining the movement and leveraging these modern tools to defeat corruption. Africa needs this, not only to build its trust with its people, but to improve its efficiencies and productivity.

NOTHING BEATS DATA

Two recent high-profile corruption cases investigated by foreign agencies show that we need to strengthen our Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) and other investigative agencies to focus their investigations around data.

Over-reliance on witness accounts sometimes leads to miscarriage of justice, especially when the corrupt frame innocent people in order to exonerate themselves, or simply interfere with witnesses.

Data beats them all and reveals the beneficiaries of corrupt practices. If all government procurement data is open and supported by constitutional provisions of freedom of information, the trail of money from corrupt transactions will be traced, as has been the case in foreign-led investigations.

TWO CRITICAL BILLS

Indeed, there will be more successful prosecutions, and lifestyle audits will be easier to conduct.

In order for Kenya to succeed, we must revive our Open Data initiative that was launched by President Kibaki in 2011, digitise all of our registries and enact two critical bills that are in Parliament, the Freedom of Information (FOI) and the Data Protection Bills.

After the launch of Kenya’s Open Data, Kenya joined the Open Governance Partnership (OGP) to become one of the 65 member nations.

The OGP’s vision is that more governments become sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of governance as well as the quality of services that citizens receive.

This will require a shift in norms and culture to ensure genuine dialogue and collaboration between governments and civil society.

THE DIGITAL GOVERNMENT

The Jubilee government is making great progress towards the digital economy that they promised during the campaigns. The recent digitisation of the civil service compliment has yielded a saving of Sh7.2 billion that used to go into ghost workers’ pockets.

From what I know, the digitisation of the Ministry of Lands’ banking hall saw revenues jump from a paltry Sh800 million to Sh9 billion in a single year, and more could be realised if the back end of the Ministry were digitised.

The matatu industry is now digital. The benefits of digitisation of a usually chaotic and informal enterprise are enormous, considering the fact that it is now possible for the Kenya Revenue Authority to capture the revenue flow and tax the sector.

It will also provide the invaluable economic data that is usually not computed into the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

TRADABLE ELECTRONIC RECEIPTS

We must push for further digitisation both in the public and private sectors to bring light to areas that have been hitherto opaque and a breeding ground for corruption. These include the manipulation of the agricultural sector, especially maize and sugar, by powerful cartels.

There is a need to make it transparent who the powerful cartels are. This is possible if the company registry data is in the open for all to know the people behind the companies that manipulate the farmers.

Simple but radical steps could reverse some of the exploitation. The National Cereals and Produce Board, for example, should be either privatised or be converted into a national warehousing company so that when farmers warehouse their produce, they are issued tradable electronic receipts, such that in their desperation for cash, they can take a loan which would be repaid when the market stabilises.

We need the enabling legislation soon because we have suffered the shame of corruption scandals in virtually every government since independence. The Kenyatta government can avoid this curse if FOI becomes law.

UNVEIL 'SKY TEAM'

It is the only way the public can get to know who is doing what and how public resources are moving from one point to the other. It is the only way of building public trust in government.

In the past few weeks, we have seen in the media some cartel going by the name Sky Team. It would help the Kenyatta administration to reveal the names of those behind this and possibly conduct a lifestyle audit on them.

By now, even at the current level of ICT diffusion in the country, their transactions are captured, and revealing the names would stall what may lead to another scandal that would seriously hurt the economy when we are striving to see a double-digit economic growth rate.

This time round, we must resist any form of exploitation by a few individuals at the expense of the majority. Let us use the power of open data and ICTs to create a sustainable revolution that can propel our economy to greater heights.

JOIN EARLY ADOPTERS

It might help to know that the World Wide Web Foundation, founded by the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, seeks to establish the open Web as a global public good and a basic right, creating a world where everyone, everywhere can use the Web to communicate, collaborate and innovate freely.

Represented by more than a dozen nationalities working from hubs in London, Washington, DC, and Cape Town, the World Wide Web Foundation operates at the confluence of technology and human rights, targeting three key areas: access, voice and participation.

Just like the impact the Web has created, these new tools from the foundation would create even greater impact.

Kenya must join the early adopters of OCDS on account of dealing with our endemic corruption. It is my prayer that our digital government in Kenya adopts the OCDS. Let’s use ICTs and Open Data to curb corruption.

Bitange Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's School of Business, Lower Kabete campus. He is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito.