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The light and dark sides of open contracting: How feedback can help harness the force

It might surprise you, but open contracting and Star Wars are actually quite similar: The force has both a light and dark side.

On the light side, open contracting is used for “knowledge and defense” so that all citizens knowing how their money is spent, defending communities against bad contracting practice, getting high-performance results. It also includes free and easy access to high-quality data about public contracts allowing government officials make better decisions and design smarter policies, crosscutting collaboration, monitoring of the procurement processes, and the final quality of these products and services.

On the dark side, we see open contracting in its worst and far-too-common form: based on vague “transparency for transparency” commitments, planned and executed to tick a box without meaningful engagement across sectors, and as a result, ultimately lacking the desired impact.

Across the globe, we see genuine interest in “light side” open contracting, but with a limited range of (inter)stellar applications. As a community, we need to identify what blocks there are to these implementations and help open contracting champions cross over from the dark to the light side.

At this year’s Feedback Labs Summit, we worked with global thought leaders in the field of feedback and engagement to identify strategies for advancing more impactful work. We spoke about the devastating effects of poor governance and feedback in cities across the US. The opioid crisis in Connecticut has resulted in a fourfold increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in five years. In 2016, heroin overdoses and synthetic opioids deaths come in at a heartbreaking 500. In Austin, homelessness rates have been skyrocketing over the last decade, with a five percent increase in the last year, alone. On any given night, there are around 2,100 Austinites who sleep without shelter.

While better procurement is by no means the only factor at play in these stories, providing better-quality, demand-driven public services, as well as more efficient procurement processes, are one important way we can help to change the outcomes for these residents of Connecticut and in Austin.

So what should be the first step? “Light side” open contracting starts with identifying a pressing problem – such as addressing drug dependence or reducing homelessness. Then pathways for people across sectors to collaborate open up to work together to identify and resolve barriers and make improvements to the procurement system.

Here are five steps you can take to get started based on the stories we heard and lessons we learned at the Summit.

  1. Get the right stakeholders on board: To make sure feedback is taken into account and improves the procurement, prioritize getting the buy-in of the right stakeholders. A very high-level political champion will give you the needed air coverage will, while the engagement from the communities will help tailor the project to their needs. Equally important is attracting the right businesses and civil society organizations who can help identify problems early on, spot opportunities for improvement, or mobilize the community around common interests. The UK’s Digital Marketplace team is working with more than 150 “good contract champions” including buyers, suppliers and legal experts to improve the Government Digital Service top model contract.
  2. Build trust and long-term relationships: Sustainable feedback loops rely on forming trusting relationships between a diverse group of stakeholders. Quality is the name of the game here. While you should make an effort to be inclusive and incentivize participation of a wide range of stakeholders, it is preferable to devote energy to fostering quality relationships between a smaller set of the right, most dedicated individuals than scattering efforts too thin in an attempt to draw massive groups. Improving trust was at the core of the Prozorro procurement reform in Ukraine where neither business nor citizens believed in their government. Over the past few years, trust in the new system shows only 29% of interviewed businesses believe the procurement process to be corrupt on the new platform compared to 54% on the old.
  3. Make it simple or don’t make it at all: Simplicity is the key to feedback systems being realistic and maintainable. Overly complex or costly interventions are unlikely to be implemented correctly and are even less likely to continue over time and survive political shifts. Complicated systems can also lead to “collection fatigue” where stakeholders become less willing to provide repeated feedback over time, or “analysis paralysis” where analysts are so overwhelmed by the amount of feedback collected that it’s impossible to spot big-picture patterns and focus in on solving root issues. An example of a simple but effective feedback process that touches upon contracting implementation issues is FixMyStreet.
  4. Combine analysis and storytelling: Data use doesn’t just involve the analysis of datasets; to be an effective tool for change, it also needs to include compelling storytelling. The power of storytelling is hard to overstate; it’s one of the most powerful tools for communicating complex or technical ideas in relatable terms that highlight the human side of open contracting. Data literacy and capacity building efforts need to combine both analysis and storytelling to be truly effective. In Guatemala, the investigative journalism organization Ojo con mi Pisto looks at the financial data including public contracts in 40 municipalities and has told more than 100 stories about misuse, fraud and corruption.   
  5. Pick your progress targets closely: While the field tends to focus on sexy metrics like percent savings or reduced corruption rates, these types of targets can be difficult to calculate correctly or only come about after years or even decades after open contracting work takes hold. We also need short-term data that shows where the issues are in order to work towards solutions. To capture change in a way that reflects progress, consult with people affected by bad procurement practices, both within and outside of government, and see what success would look like for them. We recently shared an example in Los Angeles where the city delivers gang reduction and youth development services. To address the inconsistency in results among service providers across the city, officials developed a performance evaluation report to better track their performance and make course corrections if necessary.

With a few important steps and the right people on (mother)board, you can start putting together the first pieces of your feedback loop today. Do you know of feedback loops in open contracting that have worked in your community? We want to tell your story! Email Katherine, and we’ll see how we can share your journey with our community. May the open contracting force be with you!