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8 lessons for empowering regional governments through open contracting

Empowering regional governments is one of the biggest challenges for Latin American countries. It requires strengthening the leadership of regional authorities by developing public officials’ project management capacities, being more rigorous in accountability and promoting citizen participation to deliver better goods and services.

In Colombia, we are working on our first project to build capacities and drive systemic changes at the local level with the support of the UK Prosperity Fund at the British Embassy. This project seeks to promote transparency, quality and the use of open data in public procurement to boost territorial development and competition in eight of the country’s departments. Using institution-strengthening tools like open contracting, projects like these help to empower regional governments by connecting government, academia, citizens and the private sector. Through this collaboration and capacity building, we hope these regions can make their processes more competitive and create a broader and more diverse supplier base.

Colombia has a national public procurement policy and its government entities publish their contracting processes on the platforms managed by the National Public Procurement Agency, Colombia Compra Eficiente. Data on these processes are accessible to anyone in the Open Contracting Data Standard format. This creates uniformity in the information, while retaining the departments’ administrative autonomy to carry out their own contracting processes.

The first year of this project taught us important lessons about what regional governments can do to efficiently plan their contracting processes, successfully align their strategies with those of the national government, be more inclusive, promote competition and in turn, get better results for their citizens. These lessons emerged from our direct work in the regions, as well as from local governments exchanging experiences with each other.

These are the eight strategies employed by the regional governments that transformed their contracting. They:

  1. Understand public procurement as a strategic planning tool that allows national policies to be translated locally. Beyond considering public procurement as a normative issue, the city of Cali created an Administrative Public Procurement Department, through which it has improved transparency and efficiency in its public purchases, increasing the percentage of competitive processes from 31.1% in 2017 to 55.9% in 2019. It did this by alerting the market to its needs through the Annual Procurement Plan. 
  2. Use digital tools to strengthen the transparency and efficiency of contracting processes to increase the levels of trust of citizens and suppliers. Departments such as Caldas began carrying out their competitive processes on the transactional SECOP II platform in 2019, improving the quality of published information and generating savings for the government and suppliers. They went from 53 digital processes worth $ 2.8 million in 2018 to 209 processes worth $52.8 million in 2019 (Caldas Governorate). 
  3. Have a team of data analysts who create visualizations and tools to facilitate access to information: the mayor’s office of Cali has a window of opportunities for suppliers, and the Government of Nariño presents its contracting plans in a clear and transparent way to its citizens.
  4. Involve citizens through communication: they use positive messages that arouse interest, such as the transparency agreements made by the mayor’s offices of Cali, Bucaramanga and Neiva.
  5. Promote the participation of more women in the labor market by designing contracting documents that are more inclusive. The mayor of Cali issued a requirement for 10% of suppliers who were awarded departmental contracts in 2019 to be women-run businesses. By having clauses to favor a vulnerable group, public procurement becomes an opportunity to boost development and social change. 
  6. Increase the participation of new suppliers and stimulate entrepreneurship by creating spaces to engage in public tendering, as the Cali City Hall has done. This requires a strategic approach because it seeks to increase competition in the region, which in turn improves the quality of products and services, but it is also an ongoing process in which there are contracting fairs, workshops for new suppliers and spaces for continuous interaction to motivate them to take part in the public procurement system. 
  7. They seek to make their contracting processes more efficient: the mayor’s office of Bogotá developed tools such as templates, which are documents with a standard format that define the requirements, technical and economic factors. This allows to redue times and at the same time provides the flexibility to add additional requirements for similar processes where needed. The office also created an entity to manage the city’s health contracts.
  8. The team understands and respects the role that journalism plays and is open to constructive analysis: the local newspaper La Patria in the department of Caldas, has a regular section called Magnifying Glass on Contracting, featuring articles that show citizens how to find public contracting data, along with analysis of the department’s data. These have been discussed with the government to encourage concrete changes. 

We’ve observed that the national public procurement open data policy allows regional governments to innovate in their processes, improve efficiency in the use of their resources, use public procurement as a vehicle for inclusion and growth of SMEs and local businesses, and ultimately achieve better results for their citizens.

Regional governments can become driving forces for change when there is political will, and when they understand that transparent and efficient public procurement is an effective tool for strengthening their institutions and developing their regions. And public procurement can be a catalyst for social change, by improving the goods and services that citizens receive and by expanding opportunities to participate in the market, especially for women and entrepreneurs.

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