Written By Gavin Hayman, 11 Jan 2017

The winter chill is upon us in Washington. But imagine what it must be like in icy Kyiv where temperatures have plunged to -15 Celsius. Residents of one municipal apartment building were left literally freezing in their homes after contracted repair works to improve insulation never materialized. The UAH 200,000 (US$7,500) contract was paid nonetheless. But thanks to the data published through Ukraine’s pathbreaking open contracting platform ProZorro.org, the local group Anticorruption Headquarter was able to track, report and then push for the repairs to happen. This focus on converting data into action will be our theme for 2017.

At the end of 2015, we celebrated the lift off of the Open Contracting Partnership’s moonshot to make the multi-trillion dollar world of public contracting ‘open by default’.

We were able to reach escape velocity on that mission in 2016, not least due to the enthusiasm of our partners and allies around the world and our fabulous donors and advisory board.

Both our organization and our work looked very, very different at the end of last year from the start. We saw:

  • A dramatic rise in the adoption of open contracting, with over 25 countries committing to open contracting in their public procurement in some form. Local governments and major cities are realizing its potential as well. About half of those governments are actively implementing the Open Contracting Data Standard, the open data schema that is at the heart of our plan to unlock and use public contracting data. Our free helpdesk supported more than 80 partners in more than 35 countries with policy and technical advice.
  • Five leading implementers of the data standard launched the Contracting 5, a unique international sharing and learning collaboration around implementing open contracting, formed by Colombia, France, Mexico, the UK and Ukraine.
  • An emerging focus on the use of the data and support for organizations, journalists and activists who do so. Hivos’ huge new open contracting program aims to support infomediaries in over 10 countries to bring transparency and accountability to government institutions and turn documents and data into actionable information. We’ve found that bringing procurement practitioners and data users to global data events, as we did during this year’s International Open Data Conference in Madrid, has really helped channel our energy to focus on real world impacts, beyond just portals and processes.
  • Strong sectoral interest in infrastructure, healthcare, public-private partnerships, oil and mining, land, and climate finance. We are excited to be collaborating with expert organizations in each of these fields to adjust and expand the impact of open contracting.
  • More sustained business engagement, led by organizations such as the B-Team, who kicked off a new open contracting program, or the Emerging Markets Investors Alliance.

2016-timeline

Commitments are nice but results are what really counts. In 2016, we saw the first evidence that open data and improved disclosure and engagement can genuinely transform public contracting on the ground. The most remarkable story comes from Ukraine, where open contracting is at the heart of public procurement reforms. These have allowed journalists and organizations like TI Ukraine or the Anticorruption Headquarter to investigate fraudulent contracts. The reforms have saved Ukraine more than UAH 9 billion (US$333 million) so far. Thousands of new suppliers have been encouraged to enter the market as corruption has decreased, with bidding on contracts rising too.

We’ve also made mistakes and learnt lessons. We now know a lot more about:

  • The common pitfalls. Two years in, we better understand what is needed to implement open contracting projects and the common challenges. There is a particularly vulnerable early phase when commitments can get lost as reformers meet internal resistance to change. We can now provide much better and more targeted guidance.
  • Focusing on user needs. We have found that exploring and documenting user needs right at the start of a set of open contracting reforms is key to making sure open contracting results in concrete value to our partners. It’s also vital that we bake in a set of performance indicators that our partners really care about: it can’t simply be transparency for transparency’s sake.
  • Taking time to do things properly. It takes longer (circa 1 year longer) to reach the expected level of impact in an agency or country than we originally anticipated. It takes time to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard in a meaningful way that engages users and closes feedback loops. Trying to rush, jump steps or tick boxes for a quick political fix can mean shallow reforms without real impact later.
  • The way that we do things is as important as the intended results. We want to make sure that we don’t lose our focus on user needs and collaborative engagement in a rush to meet demand.

The jump in demand for open contracting has encouraged us to step back, reflect on and refresh our strategy so that we can scale our work better. We will adapt the way we work to:

1) Provide earlier catalytic support. We need to convert rising interest and commitments into actual results. We now have a much clearer idea of how to do that, including the best workflow and approaches to implementing open contracting projects.

The early stages of adopting open contracting can be a particular challenge when reforms may meet internal resistance or momentum may dissipate. We plan to be more catalytic: proactively following up on commitments, seeking out and supporting the mid-level practitioners responsible for implementation, conducting assessments, surfacing user needs, offering tools and guidance and connecting allies.

2) Scale more effectively. We will “productize” and scale our services and guidance so that they can be replicated and adopted much more easily by others. In 2017, we will be rolling out resources like standardized assessments, draft workplans, vendor terms of reference and lists of monitoring and evaluation indicators for different use cases. We’ll also support a suite of basic open contracting visualization and analysis tools – developed either by us or by an emerging field of partners such as Development Gateway.

3) Double down on our efforts to build the field, not be the field. Getting impact across the trillions of dollars spent on public contracting each year means that we have to work through others to achieve real scale. We are going to be much more intentional about building the capacities of other organizations to deliver on open contracting. We will prioritize projects that equip our allies to do open contracting independently. We have also set ourselves explicit new targets in this area to achieve by the end of 2018, including helping our partners to get independent funding.

So 2016 was transformational for open contracting. We saw governments, businesses and citizens warming to one of the hottest trends in open government and in international development. We are stoked to have played a part in that.

As we all know though, it’s not your last move but the next one that counts. In 2017, we will double down on our new strategy, especially against a backdrop of populist distrust of governments. Stories such as the apartment residents in Kyiv should serve to keep us grounded in our vision to make public contracting smarter, more responsive and open by default. Our focus will be on turning data into impact.

With an enhanced team, refreshed coordinates and rising demand, here’s to cranking up the heat further in 2017 and to igniting lasting change around the world.

Photo: Stewart Butterfield (CC BY 2.0)