Washington, DC, Prince George’s County, Maryland and Arlington, Virginia: How transparent are their municipal contracting processes?
Photo by Ron Cogswell
What are your kids eating at school? Is your trash being picked up regularly? In what condition are your parks? Municipal procurement is where taxpayers most closely see how their money is being spent.
This spring, Transparency International – USA and students from the American University School of International Service monitored 21 procurements in Washington, DC, Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia using TI-USA’s Civil Society Procurement Monitoring Tool. The Tool, developed with a grant from the World Bank Institute, has already been used overseas in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Rwanda by civil society organizations to identify corruption and fraud in government contracting. Now, we wanted to test the Tool in the US to see what it could help us learn about municipal procurement systems in our backyard.
The Tool operates as an online questionnaire that poses more than 60 questions covering the entire lifecycle of a procurement, from the initial needs planning phase all the way through implementation and audit. Sample questions include asking whether the proposed project is unnecessary, excessive or extravagant in nature or whether there are long delays in contract implementation. Many of these questions deal with the availability of relevant documents or the presence of specific anti-corruption provisions in relevant laws or regulations. While we did not uncover any warning signs of fraud or corruption in the procurements we monitored, the Tool did allow us to assess the transparency and anti-corruption safeguards in place in the various jurisdictions we examined.
We found that in all three jurisdictions, transparency and anti-corruption safeguards could be improved.
How do the municipal e-procurement portals compare?
A government’s e-procurement website is central to its transparency efforts and to ensuring that the relevant documentation is accessible to citizens. We found that the jurisdictions’ e-procurement websites varied widely in the amount of information they published.
Virginia’s statewide eVA website was the best of the three. It is searchable, groups all documents by procurement, and publishes at least some newly-awarded contracts. (That said, new contract publication is rather spotty; a check in mid-June indicated that only 1 of 80 recently awarded contracts had been published.) It also has an archives section where it publishes older, awarded contracts, although other relevant documents such as invitations to bid and notices of award are not archived.
By comparison, the main Washington and Prince George’s websites are not searchable and do not group documents by procurement. Moreover, there are multiple unique e-procurement websites for each of these two jurisdictions, as not all agencies use the same website.
In all three jurisdictions, the websites could become more transparent, as none of them consistently publish all of the documents that Transparency International and the Open Contracting Partnership recommend be published in order to enable meaningful citizen oversight of and participation in the procurement process. These documents include bidding documents, evaluation criteria, the key elements of all bids, the key elements of bid evaluations, notices of award and their justifications, contracts (including contract amendments and change orders), and implementation, evaluation, oversight), and auditors reports.
When a document is not published on a website, it may still sometimes be obtained through a request submitted under the relevant local Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Unfortunately, we found that a majority of our requests did not receive a timely response, and that requests for contracts and bid evaluation documents were most often denied. That being said, we did find that Washington has a centralized e-FOIA portal that makes filing FOIA requests much simpler than in the other jurisdictions.
How do the municipalities’ anti-corruption laws and regulations compare?
With respect to anti-corruption laws and regulations, all three jurisdictions have significant work to do. Unfortunately, all three jurisdictions allow bidders to make campaign contributions to elected officials who have some oversight over public procurement, although Virginia does have some weak rules limiting this practice. As long as bidders are allowed to make campaign donations to such officials, the risk of conflicts of interest and political meddling in procurement decisions will continue. Washington has a provision which gives the city council the right to review contract awards for multi-year contracts and for those contracts over $1 million. This provision has recently been the subject of controversy as the city council rejected a proposed contract after lobbying from various bidders. Such provisions allowing elected officials who may receive campaign donations from bidders to second guess professional procurement officers are unfortunate in that they create opportunities for conflicts of interest. On the plus side, Washington also has a provision that requires procurement officials to file annual financial declarations. Such financial declarations can deter procurement officials from accepting bribes and help expose those who do.
TI-USA recently presented the findings of this project to a group of local civil society, business, and government leaders with the aim of beginning a discussion about how to improve local public procurement practices. We believe that local governments can and should learn from each other. But citizens and business also have an important role to play in pushing local government to make contracting more open. By working together, we can make sure our tax dollars are well spent, and that we get the public goods and services we deserve. We hope that our work will serve as a catalyst for positive change in this area.