Edwin Muhumuza recently joined us as our new Head of Africa. He calls Uganda home – where he was responsible for strategy, partnerships, e-GP projects at the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA). He is well-traveled throughout Africa where he has been working, learning, and collaborating to bring about sustainable development through improving public procurement and making sure money that is spent reaches the citizens. With a decade of experience in public procurement reforms, he has a passion for leaving things better than he met them.
With the reform energy crackling across the continent, we are excited for Edwin to lead our mission and support a growing open contracting community. We’ve asked him to share some insights into his vision for public procurement reform on the continent and the key priorities for his work this year.
What key lessons from your previous work do you bring to the open contracting community?
I know the challenges of many of my former colleagues in other public procurement agencies. My experience has convinced me that transparency and opening up the process is the way to go, especially when we’re talking about implementation. Managing compliance monitoring at PPDA, I had to keep an eye on how contracts are implemented in the country. It is just not practical to do things manually or to be physically present to monitor each contract, especially with limited resources. A government procurement portal driven by open data can help automate certain aspects of the process. I have also seen first hand the benefits of engaging with CSOs – as they are the ones present on the ground in most areas. For that relationship to work, we have to avail them the information in a format that is easily usable and accessible.
We did all that without even knowing that the approach was called open contracting. One day, we got invited to a civil society meeting by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) where we were introduced to someone from an organization called Open Contracting Partnership. That’s how we learned that what we were doing was implementing a concept called open contracting.
You talked about open data and implementing data-driven e-procurement processes. This is something many countries in the region are exploring right now as well. How did you get started and what were some of the key challenges?
One of the major challenges was that we were operating a manual procurement system and that made it difficult to monitor compliance as a regulator. The law required that procuring agencies sent information about what they were buying, then we had to check the quality of information. The manual submissions made it difficult to aggregate and analyze information received from agencies, which limited our ability to make proper use of the huge amount of data on procurement that we had. For example, we couldn’t measure performance trends by agencies and the entire system. It was clear that we needed an automated system to collect and collate procurement information. The Government then developed an electronic system—the Procurement Performance Measurement System that later morphed into a web-based Government Procurement Portal (GPP). This was part of a broader strategy to adopt an e-procurement system. To implement this, we sought out insights from other countries and built on concepts such as the Open Contracting Data Standard. Thankfully, OCP was able to support us so that our procurement data is in a much more accessible format.
The relationship between governments and civil society organizations can often be quite tense. From your experience on both sides, what do you recommend to resolve this?
One of the reasons why government agencies are hesitant to deal with CSOs is that they fear that information could be used to call the government out and the information can then be used for political purposes.
At first, it was not easy to get the government and civil servants in Uganda to work with CSOs, there was hesitancy due to mutual suspicions. In the beginning, we moved quietly. We built relationships with a few people within civil society. When the results of those partnerships started coming in, we didn’t have to do a lot of explaining anymore. The benefits of the collaboration were self-evident as CSOs supplemented and complimented the work of the government. The support we were getting from local actors or international organizations such as OCP helped us to upgrade the portal, improved data, and our understanding of how people are using the data in the GPP to generate relevant charts and insights.
Apart from digitizing public procurement, building capacity, and fostering partnerships, what other key aspects should be part of what else do you think government reforms?
Amplify our own stories. This is especially true for public procurement information. How you communicate your successes, but also the challenges faced during COVID-19 emergency procurement, for instance, is very important. Being transparent about what you are buying, and how you are regulating public procurement can help improve public trust.
What are the most shocking things you’ve seen while monitoring public contracts?
It’s the “ghost projects” that we encountered while monitoring public procurement in collaboration with AFIC. One example was a school that only existed on paper while the government had been releasing money for it. There was nothing there physically. I felt like “Wow! How could someone do this?” The audacity was shocking and it drove home the importance of monitoring public contracts from start to finish.
Some of our partners have compared public procurement to a sport. If it were, what sport would it be for you?
To me it would have to be a contact sport such as rugby or American football. Bidders are fighting for the ball which is the contract. Sometimes people get injured and some other people get suspended. The referee is the regulator and the public enjoys the benefits.
Looking ahead, what are going to be the key pillars going forward?
I intend to build on the initiatives from across the continent and continue supporting our amazing partners in Nigeria, South Africa and beyond. We’re working on a study that looks at the implementation of e-procurement systems in the region and we’ll use the insights on what works best to share the knowledge among the countries implementing their systems and use the lessons to empower those in the early stages even further.
We’ll further invest in making sure procurement data is used, both by government agencies as well as civil society organizations. There are some great examples from my prior work in Uganda but also in Edo state in Nigeria. I think that regardless of what side you’re on, government or civil society, we need to shake hands across the table and work cohesively. Governments need to understand the value civil society can bring to public procurement. And non-state actors can create solutions to support the monitoring of public contracts.
Inclusive and sustainable procurement practices are on the agenda of many of our partners. To ensure the best businesses participate in public procurement, we need to increase opportunities for women businesses. For example, we’ll share the lessons from our work with Ekiti state – that we are supporting through our Lift impact accelerator to improve access to public procurement opportunities for women-led and women-owned businesses. These lessons will be shared with others like South Africa, where there are initial steps in that direction. Through the support with partners like GIZ, we’ll help our community lay the foundations for open and sustainable public procurement, creating tools that help collect and report on key data that can inform policy interventions with evidence. Countries such as Uganda, Zambia and Kenya have already started with initiatives on sustainable procurement.
Finally, I want to thank my colleagues in the team, and particularly Nkechi Coker, who have helped me come on board and introduced me to our amazing partners during the last few weeks.
I look forward to using my experience, knowledge and the community’s support to further fire up open contracting reforms across our great continent Africa. We have lots to do – smarter, open e-procurement systems, increasing the use of procurement data, and ensuring that public procurement is inclusive and sustainable.