“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” as the original cyberpunk William Gibson said. 2020 brought that home to us very clearly. As the pandemic hit, we saw how much more resilient and effective public procurement was in countries where it is run as a data-driven digital service, treating businesses and citizens as customers. It showed us what we need to get right in 2021 to come out of the pandemic together and stronger.
COVID-19 has put procurement to the test with governments around the world struggling with out-dated, paper-based processes. Emergency procedures have been abused to abet corruption and cronyism. This has hurt women, communities of color, and poor neighborhoods and regions the most. It has also undermined trust in how government supports those that have the least.
Yet, we have also seen what works. Procurement reformers who invested in open data, clear policies and coordination, who were open to private sector collaboration and CSO monitoring achieved strong results and more resilient supply chains. It turns out that you can buy fast and buy openly.
The future for procurement is here, now we need to widen its distribution. Here’s how we will be doing that in 2021.
1) Empower people to track public contracts
2020 was full of inspiring examples of journalists and CSO activists who dug – undeterred – through thousands of documents and data points, exposing cronyism and corruption in the emergency response.
Who can forget mad examples like the Bosnian raspberry farm that won a multi-million dollar contract to supply ICU ventilators or multi-million dollar US federal contracts for test tubes that turned out to be useless soda bottles (lovingly and carefully packed with snow-shovels).
Our biggest investment in 2020 was to directly support COVID-19 emergency procurement tracking and monitoring in 15 countries (Afghanistan, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Georgia, Indonesia, Lithuania, Mexico, Kenya, Krygyz Republic, Moldova, Nigeria, South Africa, Ukraine and UK). We will carry this support into 2021 and empower our fearless journalists and CSO activists to track a return of open competition and a reduction in the use of expensive emergency contracts. Many months into the pandemic, the huge demand for PPE and essential medicines and the logistics involved for mass vaccination are hardly unforeseen.
2) Fix the system to make it open & digital
The grim reality is that many public procurement systems have been stretched to breaking by the pandemic, as governments struggled with outdated systems, supply chain shocks, vendor price gouging, counterfeit products, and straight-out fraud.
As Michael Owh who runs Purchasing and Contract Services for Los Angeles County (and who is also on our Board) put it,
“There was a week where it was actually easier for me to get four private planes willing to go pick up respirators from China than it was for me to find legitimate respirators (…) You know that the work that you’re doing — which was always related to the public good — is now saving lives on a daily basis. (…) If you can’t get something it’s really tragic. You feel desperate all the time.”
The need for change is palpable. Our key challenge for 2021 will be to make sure that fixes turn into systemic reforms that genuinely change the status quo – especially as budgets tighten and attention shifts to the economic recovery.
Our focus will be on empowering government leaders to use data for better decision making and provide user-centric services for suppliers and citizens. We will keep the evidence of impact and what works coming thick and fast. We met our ambitious targets on this in 2020, and we will kick off 2021 with a focus on how open procurement, civic engagement, and better planning are decreasing the price for essential medicines in some of our reform countries like Chile and Ukraine.
We need to make sure that governments don’t default to buying closed, off-the-shelf e-procurement systems where they sometimes don’t even own their data. It’s not a question of a bit more transparency or publishing a bit of open data, but a full rethink of the entire process of planning, tendering, awarding and measuring the performance of government contracts.
Next week we will publish our 2020 feedback survey where our community told us the key things that they want help with in 2021. We will be centring our programming around that, including more advocacy support, more help with change management in lower tech environments, and tools and resources for immediate data use.
Lastly, we will push allies in international institutions including at the G7, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, to redesign their programs to the same end.
3) Building back inclusively
If we want to overcome the vested interests that block change and if we want openness to last, ordinary businesses and citizens need to win from the reforms, especially those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
Unless procurement reforms fundamentally improve their access and opportunities to do business with the government, the same cozy power structures will persist. Unless minority- and women-owned businesses get a fair shot at winning government contracts, deep rooted inequalities will persist. We may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
We launched a report with the Aspen Institute of Urban Innovation on The Procurement Path to Equity, which captured game changing insights from dozens of experts on how we can build back better and make procurement an engine for economic inclusion and innovation. We will be now putting these at the centre of our programming.
Later this month, we will launch a new call for applications to our Lift impact accelerator program. Lift offers intensive support to high performing teams using open contracting to improve frontline services.
Our current teams have pushed the needle on open contracting around the world and we are stoked to support the next generation of Lift changemakers to build back better. This year’s challenge question for reform teams is: How will you use open contracting to support an inclusive and effective recovery?
And we are going bigger with up to seven teams – and more if anyone has some extra funding! Check out our Lift website to learn more and please share the call across your networks later in the month.
We are now two years into our five year strategy. The key shifts that we planned there have worked well for us as we pivoted to address the pandemic. The case for reform has never been stronger, so it is a good time to take stock and see how we can go even further, faster. And we will be alive to even more radical ideas like building a fully open source procurement system in collaboration with the New America Foundation.
So goodbye 2020. You proved that open contracting is the future of procurement and how government and business need to interact. In 2021, we will do our utmost to make sure that it’s at the heart of the recovery for everyone.