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Will a thousand flowers bloom?

Photo by Ajay Sahu/Flickr (modified)

When I wrote my last blog, I had just stepped off the plane into the bleak winter snows of Washington DC to start my new job. I wondered not only if I was doing the right thing but also  how our plan to open up public contracting would add value of ongoing efforts to open governments and follow the money to citizens.

The cherry blossoms came and went and our Open Contracting Partnership team was furiously interrogating and strategising with allies, officials, activists and businesses. A high point for me was my recent visit to Ottawa for the International Open Data Conference, where we had a great opportunity to practice what we preach, hosting our first policy and learning sessions around open contracting implementation. One important insight for us was how people saw open contracting as a way to realize the promise of open data as, through our data standard we can support public contracting data that is structured, organised, and usable. This puts real power behind the information.

Earlier last month, we also had the chance to share our first thinking with 50 or so of the world’s leading accountability experts at a Transparency and Accountability Initiative learning event, with the stark invitation to ‘take your frustrations out on us’ for the shortcomings and missteps that often plague new initiatives. We got an earful and listened as closely as we could. We held extensive conversations with our Advisory Board, whose feedback helped to refine key elements of our strategy. Those elements included: 

We have also benefitted immeasurably from our location at Washington’s OpenGov Hub, where we are surrounded by civic hackers and innovative colleagues from the Open Government Partnership, Global Integrity, Development Gateway, Cadastre, Feedback Labs, Article 19, the Natural Resource Governance Institute and the Center for Open Data Enterprise- among others. Not only did our fellow ‘Hubbers’ give us great insights for our strategy, we have already begun collaborations with some of them to move our efforts forward.

It’s now a sweltering (almost swampy) springtime here and I’m eager to share our insights into how to define the Partnership as we begin our work in earnest.

Our first and most valuable insight has been that we shouldn’t create a new standalone initiative, but rather that we should link up and leverage all the work that’s already there. Contracting cuts across so many issues of public benefit that we can deploy our expertise opening up government deal-making in collaboration with a range of organisations, and break down silos as we go.

We can help participants in the Open Government Partnership, for example, deliver on the 40 or so of existing commitments to improve transparency in public procurement. We can expand on the groundwork laid by others and the various accountability mechanisms already on the table to get results for everyone’s agendas.

Similarly, we can be multi-stakeholder in spirit and approach but we don’t have to have all the transactions costs of formalised constituencies or representation. In this early phase, we can build ad hoc coalitions of the willing and move quickly to promote innovation and action to get the fires of open contracting lit.

Second, building on this superb paper by Charles Kenny from the Center for Global Development and our discussions with companies, we’ve understood the strong business case for open contracting even more clearly. We can do something with business, rather than to business, by creating a level playing field for groups seeking government contracts, and by encouraging small business growth and innovation. We will work to deepen the evidence base for this, which could serve as a major catalyst for open contracting reforms.

Third, we’ve seen the expanding power of data to expose, understand, and fix problems in public contracting. It’s fair to say that data usage has been a weak point in many transparency and accountability efforts so far, so we are making the effective use of data a cornerstone of the Partnership. We are in good shape here as the World Bank team invested in thinking about this early in the Partnership’s development. The new Open Contracting Data Standard is at the heart of our work and I’ve been pleased and surprised by the widespread interest in adopting the standard, including progress in Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, Romania, Ukraine and the UK. Mr. Radu Puchiu, the Romanian Secretary of State blogs about his personal experiences in this newsletter.

Fourth, we are going to work hard to make contracting more user-friendly. As I mentioned last time, public contracting is not a topic to immediately set the heart racing but it’s vital. It is the brick and mortar of public benefit, converting government spending into services to citizens. We can make it more accessible by getting to the human stories behind the money; we need to be technically sound without sounding technical.

Fifth, we are setting ourselves up from the start to be a learning organisation, putting learning and evidence are at the heart of everything we do. We want to pilot new ways of thinking and operating, reflect on what is and is not working, make adaptations as needed, then feed our insights back into our programs and share them with the broader community.

We want to shift the global norm toward open contracting, so it is vital that we generate evidence of change on the ground. Learning what works will reinforce our advocacy, and bolster our ability to support in-country implementations for stronger impact. Effective implementation will, in turn, create more opportunities for learning and a stronger evidence base: a virtuous circle.  

One thing that I am particularly excited about the decision by Mexico City Mayor Miguel Mancera to sign up the city as an OCP showcase and learning partner, supported by Bloomberg Associates. Mayor Mancera manages a procurement budget of $10bn and delivers services to some 14 million citizens, so the public demonstration effect could be really powerful and benefits millions of citizens directly. Public contracting has been a hot issue is the city and the mayor is anxious to clean things up.

Another exciting development comes from Ukraine where businesses and civic hackers are coming together in the spirit of Maidan to help the government with procurement of humanitarian supplies during the ongoing crisis. Tato Urjumelashvili and David Marghaniawrite share here how ProZorro used the Open Contracting Data Standard as the core of a new, transparent public tendering and auctioning system.  So far, this is saving procurers 10-20% on tenders. It is a great start and we now must all work together to make sure that open tendering and transparency are at the heart of Ukraine’s much needed procurement reforms, replacing the fraud and corruption of the previous regime (see here for example).

Lastly, it’s worth reflecting on the overall scope of our mission. Public contracting is a $9,500,000,000,000 industry (that’s $9.5 trillion), accounting for about a third of all government spending and about 15% of global GDP.

There is no way on earth that the Partnership can implement open contracting everywhere on our own. What we can do build on and accelerate the global momentum, show more and more people why this matters in their lives, and support them in opening up contracting.  Together we can reach a tipping point and shift the default from closed to open.

We will be a field builder, but we are not trying to be the field.  We are helping to plant the seeds and till the soil so that others can grow the work. We don’t have to solve the whole problem ourselves but we can equip colleagues and citizens and leaders to do so, and help their work reach scale so that a thousand flowers bloom.

Once the field is strong enough, and open contracting is sufficiently embedded in global practice, our current role may no longer be necessary. We see ourselves as an agile task force, maybe growing to a team of 7-10, rather than a large competing institution We have begun with a fiscal sponsorship structure and a shared home to keep our structures lean.

As ever, we welcome your thoughts, your insights and your ideas for working together. We’re grateful for the welcome we’ve received in our new role and, for me, in a new city. Our new strategy document closes with the reminder that “the future is open”: we mean it for government deal-making, for the Partnership, and for all the collaborations to come.

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