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Breaking up vested interests: 3 steps to turn open contracting data into political change

16 Jul 2018

By Lindsey Marchessault

This post has been crossposted from the Open Government Partnership blog.

Opening up public contracting can reshape the political landscape profoundly.

It might sound boring and technocratic, but it’s actually about political change that delivers real impact. It’s about breaking up price-fixing schemes in delivering school meals to children and medicines to the sick; it’s about building bridges and running power stations. Evidence has shown time and again that more transparency, more data, and more oversight can lead to better value for money and fewer instances of corruption.

However, undertaking open contracting reforms can be very politically sensitive. We hear frequently about the government paying ten times the market price to purchase goods and services, as well as examples of businesses entrenched with politicians capturing political processes, and arranging contracts in return of favors for political campaigns. The large sums of money and the amount of discretion and opacity involved make it government’s number one corruption risk. Briefcases of money and secret deals between politicians and powerful business people make juicy fodder for movies and series.

Reformers, therefore, face an uphill battle. How can they secure meaningful and sustained change beating entrenched networks of the powerful?

There are three important factors, which we will explore more in a session at the OGP Summit in Tbilisi on Wednesday, July 18 at 15:30. An esteemed group of government, civil society, and media trailblazers from diverse countries will discuss how open contracting information can be a catalyst for political change, drawing on the experiences of bold individuals who have used the power of transparency and data to challenge the status quo and push for reforms.

1. Get the facts straight and bust the myths

When a sensitive reform is on the table, like opening up all the contracts and payments given to major political donors, the first reaction will be to reach for excuses to maintain the status quo. Those with vested interests will provide a long list of reasons why transparency could be damaging or infeasible, for example, that disclosing contracting information:

  • encourages and sustains collusion,
  • decreases competition, or
  • costs too much money and leads to costly appeals and renegotiations.

For the advocates and potential champions, it may be unclear which of these arguments are valid and which are myths. The OCP has recently concluded a major research project with over 70 experts in 20 countries to give reformers practical arguments for busting the top 10 myths used to justify contract secrecy.

Without the myths cloaked as justifications, vested interests will not have as much credibility to hold the status quo. For example, whenever the former Colombian procurement director was told that disclosing contracts would reveal companies’ commercial secrets, she would respond “Do you really think that Coca-Cola is going to put their recipe in an annex of a public contract? Commercial secrets do not belong in public contracts.”

OCP’s Mythbusting report will be launched in Tbilisi on Wednesday night. Register here.

2. Make your reform election-proof through collective action

If you want your reform to be sustainable, you need to ensure it can survive elections. Often in the open government space, a new administration can undo a lot of the previous gains that have not been legally and culturally entrenched. If the reform hinges on political cover from one high-level champion, then it is vulnerable to slide back.

However, if the reform has been widely socialized, supported by parliamentarians, audit authorities, anti-corruption commissioners, business, and civil society, then there is a better chance it will continue, and be impactful. The open contracting theory of change relies on information being shared so that better multi-stakeholder monitoring can lead to improved outcomes. For example, in Paraguay, publishing information about the payments of contracts has enabled students to study the damaging effects of late payment on value for money and make recommendations for how underperforming agencies can improve. In Mexico, civil society watchdogs like Transparencia Mexicana have been able to create a role for themselves in the law to monitor procurement processes in large value projects in cooperation with the government.

In Ukraine, hundreds of stakeholders were mobilized from business, civil society, and government (including politicians) to support the reform. Social media was leveraged to have active and widely shared conversations about the importance of the transparency, monitoring, and accountability that were the result of the new e-procurement system. Development partners supported this message when they engaged with the government. As a result, the new system was legally entrenched and has survived multiple political changes. Similar efforts are underway in Mexico and Colombia, to ensure new administrations will build on reforms started in the past.

3. Journalists make great allies

Finally, it is important that the message of open contracting is clear and concise. The political class should expect to be praised for supporting reforms, and criticized for attacking them. Journalists play an important role in crafting and carrying that message to the public, and they can also expose the harm that occurs when a culture of secrecy is the norm. If backsliding on reforms is met with media silence, it is the biggest encouragement for those with vested interests to return to a status quo.

All of these topics and more will be explored with our panel in Tbilisi. We hope you can join us!