In this interview, Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of Open Contracting Partnership, reveals the reason why transparency is corruption’s biggest enemy.
I have a science background and earlier in my career was working on environmental issues. Through that work, I helped a small organization set up an undercover sting operation on the smuggling of ozone-damaging chemicals, which led me to become deeply interested in how and why people evade well-meaning laws. I studied for a doctorate in international environmental crime, which got me thinking about what happens if the state is the criminal and why laws often seem set up to deliberately fail. Of course, that led me to study corruption and work with Global Witness, one of the few groups investigating, naming, and shaming corrupt perpetrators. And that, of course, led me to public contracts.
Our world is built on public contracts. One in every three dollars spent by governments — an astounding US$ 9.5 trillion a year — is on a contract to deliver goods, works, and services to citizens.
That procurement is often a black box, with information disconnected or buried in filing cabinets so that even people within government — never mind companies or citizens — don’t know or can’t access information about what is being purchased, from whom, and for what price. Although vital, public contracting is seen as a risk-averse, compliance-based chore.
The role of procurement has become painfully clear as governments have scrambled to purchase life-saving protective equipment. In the United States, millions of dollars in contracts for masks and ventilators never materialized. Excess costs of inflated food prices in municipalities of Colombia could have fed more than 50,000 families for a month.
We have all heard similar stories about wasteful and corrupt government spending in other areas. What many of us haven’t heard is the solution.
Public contracting can be transformed through open data and better engagement. Open contracting is helping countries obtain better goods, works, and services; save time and money; create a fair and level-playing field including for women- and minority-owned businesses; foster innovation and entrepreneurship; and increase public integrity by detecting and deterring fraud and corruption.
We can break open the black box of procurement to unlock benefits for government, businesses, and communities.
Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) is a silo-busting collaboration across government, business, and civil society. We work to open the entire public contracting process. We are building a global community to rethink public procurement as a modern, efficient, fair, and transparent digital service that allows the public to serve as watchdogs, and levels the playing field for more suppliers to better serve government needs.
We support our partners to do two key things that, when combined, can be very powerful.
First, we help partners work with businesses, civil society, and governments to develop reforms that create open procurement systems that work for everyone. It is vital to build cross-sector coalitions for change that can help overcome vested interests that block reforms.
Second, we work to ensure that the data related to contracts are published in an open, accessible, structured, and machine-readable format. This makes the contracts much easier to analyze and track.
We support an Open Contracting Data Standard that is being used by 25 cities and governments from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom to publish their data. This global standard is specifically designed to help track information and money across the whole public contracting process — from planning, to tender, to award, to implementation of contracts — using unique IDs to link information across different datasets within government. It enables anyone — government, civil society, journalists, and businesses — to analyze government contracting.
A global standard in open data has a few important benefits. First, it allows us to create tools — for governments, reformers, and watchdogs — that can be used across geographies. A global standard also reduces the hurdle for governments interested in adopting open contracting as everything they need is already available. That accelerates the pace of reform.
Public contracts are where the money, power and discretion collide in government. It is government’s number one corruption risk. About 60% of all the foreign bribery cases prosecuted have involved government contracts.
Corruption can kill. Consider school roofs that fall down on their students, faulty face masks and ventilators, or ghost health clinics that exist only on paper.
After the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, government, business, and civil society came together to put open contracting at the heart of a new e-procurement system called ProZorro. It has already saved the country over US$ 2 billion and counting and significantly increased competition with thousands of new suppliers doing business with government for the first time.
This competition has cut the price of generic medicine by an incredible 35% on average.
In Bogotá, Colombia, the city’s education secretary and the national public procurement ministry worked together to develop a new, open contracting process for the provision and delivery of 800,000 meals for school children each day. Opening up the contracting process and taking a data-driven approach turned it into the highest-ranked school meal program in the country and broke up a US $22m price-fixing scheme.
We’ve learned that reforms have to be built around a diverse team of changemakers. Open contracting is demanding and thoughtful work, bringing together politics, policy, data, and cultural change. We have also learned to meet government where they are; we can’t wait for them to come to us. So we’ve built a new impact accelerator program called Lift to help teams at the frontline of public service reforms address procurement. We help them get political support and buy-in, with technical and data work, and public communications. The future is open. And it’s not only great for governments but also for businesses, for citizens, and for innovation.