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#UNGASS2021: Why procurement matters and what should be done about it

The procurement systems of the past failed during the pandemic. As the UN General Assembly Special Session Against Corruption gets underway, we still see news story after news story of the struggle to buy open, smart and fast during the largest global government spending spree in modern memory. Emergency procedures have been misused to award contracts to a raspberry farm for ventilators, pass off  empty soda bottles  as test tubes, and even to procure camels  without transparency or competition.  

We face an uncertain future where we must not only fight corruption, but restore global public health, foster economic recovery, build more equitable open societies and combat the effects of climate change — challenges which will require unprecedented levels of public spending, much of it on contracts with companies. 

At Open Contracting Partnership, we work to transform government procurement, going beyond transparency alone to make the whole contracting process open, data-driven, inclusive and responsive to new insights. We want an end-to-end approach that not only reduces the risk of and harm from corruption in public contracting, but also rebuilds citizens’ trust in their governments’ ability to deliver the critical goods and services needed to fulfill the ambition of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

From maximizing education budgets for the biggest impact on student outcomes to building climate change resilient infrastructure to expanding access to healthcare, public contracts are a vital tool for optimizing government resources. That’s why the SDGs need open, data-driven insights that include civil society, media and industry input across the whole of the procurement cycle — from planning to tender to contract to implementation and monitoring. 

The political declaration advances the global norms for public procurement in four fundamental ways that we welcome:

  1. Emphasizing the need for procurement transparency throughout the whole cycle of procurement, to go beyond just publishing contracts or tenders alone.
  2. Committing to strengthening data collection systems, which will improve the quality of information available to iteratively improve corruption prevention and detection as well as provide insights that help optimize public service provision.
  3. Acknowledging the public right to access data and information related to corruption prevention and detection, which is the foundation for civil society engagement and monitoring of public spending.
  4. Embracing digital tools, open data and web portals as the modern tools that will strengthen our ability to prevent and detect corruption.

But these clear steps forward are just the beginning of what open contracting can do in the fight against corruption, and critical components of open contracting are still missing from the final declaration. 

Governments now need to deliver on these commitments. In 2019, we calculated that governments spend US$13 trillion a year on public contracts for goods, services and works. But less than 3% of that money ($363 billion) is published openly. Opaque contracts shut out businesses, journalists and civil society from analyzing and interrogating the data. 

Governments need to start publishing tenders and contract data now. And let’s get back to normality by winding down the use of emergency procedures, sole sourcing and direct awards without public competition or scrutiny. 

Public procurement is both powerful and personal. It’s a direct manifestation of the social contract between citizens and government that underpins vibrant, prosperous open societies so governments can commit to full inclusiveness and end-to-end transparency in the use of stimulus monies.

So, ultimately, we can move beyond transparency as a chore and a “gotcha” exercise to open, data-driven insights that engage civil society, the public and the market to generate enormously valuable insights that improve procurement outcomes beyond the contract document itself. Better schools and school meals. Not just a street but better, climate-resilient public infrastructure with citizen’s needs put first. We want real change and insight that saves and improves real lives. The declaration is progress and marks that shifting norm. It’s a good place to start but the wrong place to stop to elevate the power of public procurement to build back a better, more equitable, more sustainable society.

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