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Who looks at public contracts?

Last week the Open Contracting Data Standard helpdesk team was in Amsterdam for TransparencyCamp EU. Here are some of the learning from our sessions.

Think about the last few weeks. If you’ve travelled, chances are you have used rail, road or airport infrastructure built and operated as a result of public contracts. If you’ve needed medical treatment, the supplies and drugs may have been purchased through contracting processes. And if you’ve been out into local public spaces, there are probably many maintenance contracts that keep these in shape too.

Following the contracting process

But – what can you discover about those contracts, and the processes that brought them about? That was the first challenge we set participants at an introduction to Open Contracting workshop, co-hosted with HIVOS, ahead of TransparencyCamp EU.

Participants opened up their laptops and had 15 minutes to track down information about particular public contracts they cared about, from airport construction in Turkey, to the building of a new metro in Amsterdam.

Were there opportunities for citizens to shape the plans? When were the original tenders? Who won the bids? What’s the current status of the contract? As we dug into these questions we found ourselves drawing on a mix of media stories, wikipedia articles, and, thanks to the knowledge of some procurement professionals in the room, tucked-away tender portals on municipal websites. It was a journey of half-information, PDFs and 404 errors as we tried to track down a clear picture on each contracting process.

In the case of the Amsterdam metro, we heard about public consultation processes and referenda before construction began – albeit with a result rejecting the project that was disregarded by the authorities due to voting thresholds – and about subsequent budget overruns. In other cases, we discovered the privatised firms who had the contract to run local tram services, but couldn’t find the terms of those contracts, or information on ongoing costs and revenues for the municipality. Also, we couldn’t find a clear end-to-end picture of any of the contracts or projects.

In discussion afterwards, this led us to a number of points:

Addressing information gaps, and making data on the whole contracting process more accessible, is exactly where the ‘Disclosure’ component of open contracting comes in. The Open Contracting Data Standard is a practical tool to help governments provide a strong foundation of structure disclosure. With this, instead of spending hours looking for information on contracting, citizens, businesses and governments can spend the time on analysis, engagement and improvement.

Is anyone really looking for this stuff?

The day after our workshop, we hosted a session in the main TransparencyCamp EU unconference. As we started out with a similar exercise, looking for contracting data, one participant put the vital question: “Getting information out there is all very well: but who really looks for contracting information?”. Surely, the argument goes, if there was demand for this information – governments would already be providing it in more accessible forms.

Yet, there is substantial demand. Firms who have lost bids want to understand why, and who they are losing too. Local communities are monitoring projects and the contracts that deliver them. And networks like DigiWhist are looking EU-wide for signs of contracting corruption.

Of course, not every individual contract has a ready audience. We explored how disclosure provides a foundation for engagement on three levels:

In some of these cases, it might be individuals looking for contracting information, but in others it involves intermediaries.

The need to build the capacity of intermediaries is central to the new open contracting programme hosted by HIVOS and Article 19. Through scoping studies, this new five-year programme is working to understand the existing landscape of contracting information provision, use and intermediary capacity. It will then work to build the capacity of technologists, journalists and NGOs in a number of developing countries, equipping a wider community with the skills to access, investigate, analyse and communicate information on contracting, and to act with this information to address corruption, and improve contract planning and execution.

Rather than assuming no-one is interested in contracts, our dialogue was pointing towards the many times individuals, communities and intermediaries do want to find out information: but right now hit lots of small barriers to building the bigger picture of a contracting process. Addressing those barriers will take both investments in data supply, and equipping a wide range of technical and social intermediaries.

As it turned out, the questioner mentioned earlier, who asked if anyone would really be interested in contracting information, was himself a subcontractor on the Amsterdam metro project. By the end of the short session he was still digging into online sources, trying to find out if information was available to trace from the construction project right down to his recent invoices for work completed. As the session finished, the search was ongoing.

Technically sound, without sounding technical

In the afternoon of our pre-TransparencyCamp workshop, participants from across the EU presented on projects from government, civil society and the private sector, all working to make contracting information more accessible and useful (you can see some of the slides from these talks below). From the Portuguese Government Contracts Register, and the story of how OpenCorporates emerged from work to match contracts and company data, to EuropeAidContracts built to understand potential partnerships when bidding, and the experience in Spain of Civio scraping public works procurement data, a number of common themes emerged:

Getting data right is, ultimately, a technical challenge. But it should not be about technology for its own sake, nor should talk of standards and schemas be turned into a barrier to engagement. In the workshop we experimented with a new method to explore the importance of different data fields to different kinds of uses of contracting information – handing around cards detailing each of the building blocks from the Open Contracting Data Standard, and thinking about which of these building blocks would be important in particular contexts. We’ll be refining the resources for this and sharing more soon.

Ultimately whilst getting the data right is a technical challenge: using it effectively is a political and social challenge. As open contracting continues to develop, we have continued work to do in order to keep the technical foundations solid, whilst making sure the conversation and action remains focussed on participation, accountability and innovation.

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