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Transparency, accountability and effectiveness of public procurement in Central Asia: civil society recommendations

Central Asia has emerged as an unlikely region for open contracting reforms. Kazakhstan and  Kyrgystan have started publishing open data on public procurement over the last year for the first time. Civil society organizations are taking note. They have started analyzing newly available data and are building new tools to make information more accessible (which we supported with our recent innovation challenge). But countries still need more work for fully transparent, accountable and efficient procurement systems. Sole-source contracts are still high, skill levels especially at the local level low, and key spending such as on healthcare often remains opaque.  

In July, as part of the Social Innovations in Central Asia program funded by the USAID, we brought experts and civil society organizations together in the first-ever Regional Transparency Forum for Central Asian Countries to discuss budget transparency, openness and effectiveness of public procurement, features of local self-government, why civic engagement matters, and more. A general resolution summarizes the recommendations. 

Overall, forum participants noted that transparency in the public procurement sector in the Central Asian region is fairly high, with a good level of access to information and, frequently, public procurement data. However, this openness only paints half of the picture. For instance, published terms of reference often fail to provide a clear picture of what the planned purchase entails. Likewise, signed agreements and their terms, as well as information on their implementation, are not always accessible. For this reason, and despite the general transparency of the public procurement sector in the region, key parts of the procurement process remains opaque and bars citizens and civil society organizations from providing oversight and accountability.

Creating a transparent, accountable, and effective public procurement system

Based on our discussions, we’d like to share the following recommendations on public procurement:

In addition, we highlight the following specific recommendations.

Apply public procurement legislation equally to all agencies

During the pandemic, the most significant spending and procurement happen in the health care sector. While information about medicine prices is generally available throughout the region, in Kazakhstan, citizens will have a hard time finding out details about procurements conducted by SK-Pharmacy, the country’s medicine purchasing agency. In addition, oversight and accountability in the public procurement sector are often selective rather than systemic and preventative in their nature.

Our recommendations are as follows:

Reduce direct contracting

But single-source procurement still accounts for a significant part of public spending in the region. National legislations throughout the region include many exceptions to public procurement laws, which enable procuring agencies to evade competitive procurement procedures. Compared to non-competitive procedures such as direct awards, competition reduces costs by up to 10%.

Share of direct contracts in Kazakhstan exceeds 60%, visualizations

Our recommendations are as follows.

Invest in skills and business intelligence

A major problem in the region is the low skill-level and motivation of public procurement officers. Many agencies still consider these public servants as mere bureaucrats rather than a real opportunity for strategic development. There are no high-quality training and professional developments programs for procurement officers. If public procurement officers are trained in more than just the legislation and, for instance, are upskilled to conduct procurement management, in particular, through practices of strategic planning, category management, andsupplier relations. This will make public spending more efficient. Availability of procurement data in machine-readable formats has paved the way for new business intelligence tools, which may significantly improve not only the performance of procurement officers but also the quality of management decisions and oversight into subordinate organizations.

Business Intelligence application based on Qlik, in Kazakhstan

Our recommendations are as follows.

Simplifying and standardizing procurement

Government procurement in the region is fairly decentralized, which means that many regional and rural organizations are forced to procure a standard set of goods themselves, without template technical specifications. This significantly increases procurement officers’ workload and reduces the efficiency of public spending.

Example of electronic catalogues with standard specifications for public buyers in Kazakhstan –

Our recommendations are as follows.

Civil society is a crucial stakeholder in an effective and efficient public procurement sector. We look forward to a constructive dialogue with the authorities and are ready to further provide our support to increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency in public spending in Central Asia and beyond.

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