U.S. must buy better to build back better
It’s a big week for the fight to restore democracy and combat corruption. The White House has just released the first-ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, and President Biden is calling on world leaders to restore trust in the vision of free, fair, open societies at the Summit of Democracy, kicking off a year of action. Democracies will vow to ‘build back better’ and emerge from the pandemic crisis more resilient than ever.
But we can’t build much of anything back, let alone better or quickly, on the outdated foundation of slow, bureaucratic, compliance-driven procurement systems that fail to include citizens, businesses, and communities in planning and monitoring how public money is spent. Better schools, roads and healthcare services: We need to make public spending count to create sustainable and equitable societies.
During the pandemic, we saw how these antiquated systems hampered governments’ ability to spend quickly and efficiently to provide quality public services. We saw dirty soda bottles delivered in place of test tubes in Texas, and the Department of Defense spending most of its $1 billion from the CARES Act intended for the pandemic response on military supplies instead.
Democracies around the world are now set to spend unprecedented sums responding to the pandemic and investing in economic recovery. The U.S. government alone has committed $5 trillion in pandemic-related programs, approved a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and the Senate is due to vote on a $1.75 trillion Build Back Better initiative. These investments present a unique opportunity to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. But in our experience, they are also prone to waste and fraud.
This is why open contracting is one of the most important commitments for governments to prioritize during the Summit of Democracy’s year of action. To improve accountability and efficiency in public procurement, we advise to take four steps:
- Establish clear mandates for procurement for the whole of government to make open competition the norm, and empower oversight agencies to make sure regulations are enforced. These mandates should be designed with and by key stakeholders, including purchasers, oversight agencies, civil society, and small businesses.
- Publish open data across the entire procurement cycle, from planning through award and implementation, and make this data user-friendly for government officials, businesses, and citizens alike. The U.S. and other countries around the world publish millions of pieces of contracting data, but this data is often incomplete, not easy to understand or machine readable. 30 countries use the free Open Data Contracting Standard to help improve data quality and accessibility. In the U.S., the data available on USASpending.gov and PandemicOversight.gov is a great start, but more can be done to link this information to planning and delivering critical public services. U.S. federal contracting opportunities alone can be found on 90 different sources, while major government spending programs, such as the Made in America waivers, don’t have an intuitive way to link the waiver back to a specific solicitation.
- Set social value goals for public procurement, and report on your progress towards achieving these goals. The ways that governments buy goods, works, and services have tremendous power to shape markets and include traditionally underserved communities. Although some governments aim to use procurement to achieve social outcomes, such as improving gender and racial equity or boosting sustainability, they often lack clear and measurable objectives. For example, the U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality and Government-Wide Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce, both lack explicit quantitative public goals on contracting. Clear objectives for open contracting should also be highlighted as an item in the upcoming Open Government National Action Plan.
- Make procurement transparency a cornerstone in our global fight against corruption. We already know that public contracts are a government’s number one corruption risk. To achieve the scope of ambition set out in the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, we must look at corruption holistically. From having beneficial ownership information on who wins government contracts, to tracking that returned assets are spent as intended, procurement touches so many aspects of the fight against corruption.
There is no better demonstration of a government’s commitment to working for its citizens than spending their money effectively and efficiently to solve their most pressing problems. We hope the U.S. government will lead Summit attendees in making strong commitments to open contracting across the whole of government, and in the transnational fight against corruption.