Written By Karolis Granickas, 8 Jun 2017

Last week, I went with my colleague Leigh Manasco to the spectacular city of Kathmandu, nestled in the Himalayas. Nepal is one of our Showcase and Learning Projects, and the country’s government is about to publish a lot more of its public contracting data. We wanted to find out who might make use of the new tools that are springing up to monitor all that information, how they will do it and if we can help.

The context is as challenging as it is promising

It’s an incredibly interesting time for open contracting in Nepal. Only a few weeks ago, Nepalis voted in their first local elections in 20 years. Among many other things, the change will give local, democratically-elected authorities more power in procuring goods and services than before, when procurement was managed centrally. Open contracting has the potential to help these officials make the best decisions for their citizens, especially as the country pours resources into rebuilding after the destructive earthquake in 2015.

In July 2017, the government’s centralized e-procurement system will become mandatory for all agencies to use. It will publish data that is compliant with the Open Contracting Data Standard making more contracting data available for others to reuse.

Our local partner, Young Innovations, is developing a procurement monitoring portal, and other innovative projects are being built, for example, by students who joined a hackathon that we supported earlier this year.

With more data and tools expected to emerge in the coming months, we got together with our local partners in the country’s capital to start thinking about the next steps.

Who will use contracting data & how?

Nepal is at a much earlier stage than any of our other Showcase and Learning Projects, so we are experimenting with some of our tools and approaches in 2017, before developing a more definitive strategy for 2018.

To test and learn about how open contracting principles may work in practice in Nepal, we’ve designed a pilot monitoring program. In 2017, we will work with a local organization, Cahurast, to monitor up to ten large contracting projects from a few sectors, including health, roads, irrigation, and urban development. Around twenty monitors (student observers who are trained in accessing and analyzing public information) will use available contracting data, go out to visit project sites and conduct interviews with open contracting implementers with a goal to advise local governments on making their procurement more efficient, open and fair.  

We’ll look at the full cycle of open contracting from data release, its reuse, monitoring and providing feedback to fixing problems on the ground.

Cahurast has been monitoring infrastructure projects for years in the districts of Gorkha, Dhading and Pyuthan. Their philosophy, like ours, focuses on providing feedback to government to fix problems. The organization uses the so-called fix-rate success methodology, which tracks how much feedback governments actually implement. We are very eager to see how it can be applied to open contracting.

We will also test out http://www.developmentcheck.org/ as a tool for tracking the impact of the monitoring work on procurement processes, and use this experience to make recommendations on how the tool could be best applied or adapted to open contracting.

We hope this approach will help us to identify gaps in contracting information, how engagement and feedback looping will work in practice, and learn about potential monitoring opportunities for other organizations in Nepal.

What have we learned so far?

Preconceptions can be a huge barrier. Things that work in our other Showcase and Learning Project countries (Mexico, Ukraine and the UK) may not necessarily work in Nepal. Listening carefully and identifying opportunities that are appropriate for the context are crucial. Factors like holding the first local elections in 20 years, limited access to useful data, political climate and general poverty levels should be considered carefully when planning a contracting oversight initiative. Our local partners’ experience in monitoring and analyzing contracting data will be an asset for identifying factors we may not have considered, and ensuring our dialogue with local government agencies remains constructive.

Long journeys start with small steps. Some of the public agencies we met spoke about a difficult transition from their existing  (often paper-based) systems to a centralized e-procurement system. They faced challenges in training staff, and changing everyday practices and customs. Although we are eager to jump in and help, we can’t rush and overwhelm the civil servants whose work will be affected by any reforms. Striking a balance between giving a helping hand and forcing a rapid change in institutions isn’t easy, but it is critical, since our primary goal of monitoring procurement in Nepal is to work with agencies to help them do better procurement.

Defining success is harder than it looks. Measuring our success takes an effort to plan. Developing a monitoring framework and talking about website visits or other basic outreach metrics is easy, but what we really should be looking for is evidence of more oversight capacity and better collaboration among civil society, government and business for better procurement. This can mean many things in different contexts: we are not yet sure what it means in Nepal and will be keeping our eyes open throughout the pilot phase of the monitoring program. See our thoughts on general monitoring and learning in Nepal in a previous post.

We stand a chance of making procurement smarter in Nepal. The Public Procurement Monitoring Office is demonstrating great determination and leadership, local organizations are hungry to play a role in procurement, public agencies want to make their own lives easier with better data management and most importantly, citizens deserve better oversight of their tax money. Everyone we spoke to in Nepal agreed that procurement needed fixing and there is a lot of room to make a difference. Our sleeves are rolled up, ready for the challenge!