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Opening up city contracts: a new partnership and policy guidelines

We are happy to work with the Sunlight Foundation and the What Works Cities initiative to look at best practices in procurement policy and the proactive release of open contracting data. Let us know what you think of our draft policy guidelines for municipal open contracting by adding your comments and suggestions here.

U.S. cities spend huge sums on public contracting each year. In just two cities, New York and Los Angeles, contract spending was almost $25 billion in 2015 alone. Not all this money is spent well or even properly. A 2015 State Integrity Investigation found corruption red flags across the U.S. In Chicago, the head of the public schools services was involved in kickbacks on training contracts, diverting $23 million from money for some of the city’s poorest residents

It’s not only the risk of corruption, there is also the challenge of ensuring quality and value for tax dollars. In 2015, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine announced that the two companies contracted to provide meals in public schools would pay the city a $19.4 million legal settlement, claiming the companies overcharged the city and provided meals that did not meet expectations or quality standards. One of the companies meanwhile maintains that a lot of the problems were caused by the department itself. How is a citizen to know who is at fault and what companies and city halls are supposed to deliver?

We think that open contracting can help by helping put a lot of the actual documents and data on entire contracting process into the hands of the people who care about it most. This is an important step at the city level. There, open government and open data efforts have shorter accountability loops and therefore real impact can be felt directly and quickly, a point made by Global Integrity co-founder Nathaniel Heller.

The challenge and opportunity are tremendous. That’s why the Open Contracting Partnership and the Sunlight Foundation are working together to revamp Sunlight’s Procurement Open Data Guidelines, and relaunching the resource in a new format, as Policy Guidelines for Municipal Open Contracting. Take a look at the draft version, available now. We’ll be incorporating revised input based on cases in cities around the U.S. (and a few beyond).

These guidelines build on the original recommendations as well as Sunlight’s guidance on Open Data Policy to help decision makers develop practical, workable policies to ensure publication of the most important information to citizens – the “who, what, when and how much” of contracts. Starting from a commitment to being “open by default,” they also importantly include policy guidance for establishing mechanisms to engage with stakeholders to use the data and ensure accountability.

But that’s not all. Further research will help sharpen our tool as we discover what methods work for transparency in city contracting. In the process, we’re going to take deep dives into a few examples that stand-out, so we can all learn from the best. We’ll be using conclusions of these studies to make these guidelines even more relevant for our users.

Legislating municipal open contracting is essential because it captures the public commitment necessary to sustain the change in the way that contracting is done. With that longer term shift, trust can be further reinforced as the community tracks and engages with the procurement process.

Municipal contracting policy isn’t necessarily a topic that get’s the heart racing, but it matters when it comes to the quality delivery of the goods and services that city residents deserve. So take a look at the new guidelines and let us know how you think they might work in your own city! We look forward to learning from you!

The Highlights:
Municipal open contracting policies should…

  • State a clear policy objective
  • Build on laws and regulations about public procurement
  • Create mechanisms for monitoring contracting data quality
  • Commit to “open by default”
  • Commit to stakeholder participation at clearly identified points in the contracting process
  • Clearly define mechanisms for public stakeholders and municipal oversight bodies to use disclosed data to identify problems and make changes to address them
  • Describe what will published: Open data from all contract phases
  • Publish data under an open license
  • Include a clear data publication policy

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