Public contracts are everywhere. Roads and public transport, hospitals and medicines, school buildings and school meals: all are financed through public procurement. But the reality is that often things are not working as they should.
Journalists and civil society organizations are increasingly recognizing the role of public procurement in improving the lives of citizens and the potential for doing procurement better. Thanks to an increase in data and information on public procurement in the region, they can take a closer look. And they are sharing their findings with the public —what’s not working and what’s working.
In this post, I want to share some of the most inspiring and creative examples from Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Television continues to have the largest audience in the region. When information is shared on TV, it resonates widely. The shows Investigation.Info (Ukraine), Schemes.Corruption in detail (Ukraine), Antikor.KZ (Kazakhstan) are leading investigative programs in their countries looking into dubious procurements, bribery in state institutions, and other forms of corruption, including the public officials and politicians involved.
The Ukrainian program Bihus.info stands out. Their investigations into defense procurement influenced the results of the last presidential elections in 2019.
Most of these programs publish videos on YouTube to reach a wider audience.
Youtube has also become the main alternative platform for journalists who can’t publish on TV. Examples of programs raking up views that investigate corruption are the Kyrgyz Temirov Live and the Kazakh programs They have already left for us and Adildik Joly.
A normal newsroom covers a wide range of news and may only write about public procurement from time to time. But some teams in the region are dedicated to investigating and reporting procurement corruption.
Our Money – Ukraine
I would like to highlight the editors at the Ukrainian website Our Money. It has been monitoring public procurement since 2010, resulting in one of Ukraine’s largest public databases of public procurement abuse cases.
Ukraine is famous for introducing the fully transparent public procurement system, Prozorro, in 2014. So I asked “Our Money” about the impact of this unprecedented public procurement data disclosure on the level of procurement violations in Ukraine:
“Compared to the times of Yanukovych (President of Ukraine from 2010 to 2014, that fled to Russia), there is less embezzlement, but it still happens. But there are two main benefits of open data. Firstly, professionals such as journalists or analysts can conduct in-depth investigations. Secondly, the number of people interested in open data is increasing. As people have access to the data, they can pressure the authorities by asking the right questions,” says Aleksey Shalaysky, Editor-in-chief of Our Money.
Our Money is behind projects like Bihus.info, which started as a video version of Our Money’s economic investigations and then spun off into a separate newsroom.
Out of the material collected by the Our Money team in cooperation with the non-proft Anti-Corruption Center, the Ukr.aw project emerged. Lawyers transformed the abuses identified into appeals to regulatory authorities and tracked the verdict of each appeal. The project regularly followed up with regulatory authorities on the need to bring cases to justice in the courtroom. The Ukr.aw database documents hundreds of public procurement violation cases and their results, which did not always end with the triumph of justice.
Kloop – Kyrgyzstan
Kloop is a data journalism organization that develops extremely creative projects. For example, they collaborated with the community to build a satellite to represent Kyrgyzstan in space. They are also creating data tools that help expand the community of procurement information users. In June 2022, they worked with Open Contracting Partnership to create a public procurement risk assessment tool so that any interested person could analyze suspicious tenders. Through their work analyzing data, Kloop has uncovered public procurement issues from the discipline of buyers to execute contracts, the lack of complete information published on the national public procurement portal, and the feasibility of legislative changes.
“It would be much easier if the Kyrgyz state itself would also be more interested in procurement transparency. Unfortunately, lately, we have seen a deterioration. We must design all of our tools to be able to work in an environment that is hostile to analysis. For example, we do not rely solely on the API (government publishing point in machine-readable format) but continue to rewrite and improve the government public procurement site scraper. Of course, this greatly slows down our work. But we believe that the harder the task is, the more important it is to do it,” says Rinat Tukhvatshin, Co-founder of Kloop
Not only journalists use social networks to share updates on public procurement. In Ukraine, the Facebook group Community of Reformers of the Public Procurement System of Ukraine has grown to almost 13,000 members. It includes buyers, suppliers, politicians, experts, and public figures working in the public procurement sector. A similar group, Public Procurement Experts, is growing in Moldova with around 1,300 participants. These groups actively discuss challenges and innovation in public procurement and advise each other.
Jamilya Maricheva, the founder of “ProTenge.kz” in Kazakhstan, launched a public procurement project on Instagram and now has an audience of over 97,000 followers. The ProTenge team communicates complex procurement information in a simple way to engage readers in discussions. One of their strategies is creating high-quality visuals that are understandable by many audiences. Most of their posts get thousands of likes and hundreds of comments.
The Ukrainian state enterprise Prozorro, which manages the country’s e-procurement system, launched the Telegram channel “Tendernya”. It shares communications with buyers about procurement issues, amendments to legislature and bylaws, news from around the world, training events, conduct surveys, and best practices in public procurement. The channel serves as a feedback loop for the procurement community and sometimes entertains buyers with cool public procurement memes.
Podcasts, festivals, and tours
There are also procurement podcasts for those who prefer the radio format. Before the Russian attack on Ukraine, Aleksey Shalaysky’s podcast, “What was stolen this week”, was available on radio NV. As an investigative journalist, he reviewed suspicious tenders weekly and gave practical advice on identifying potential corruption risks in the news shared by news agencies.
Another unique space is the Mezhyhirya Fest, an annual anti-corruption festival that brings together investigative journalists, anti-corruption activists, politicians, and media experts worldwide. It is held in the Museum of Corruption—the estate of the former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
During the festival, the best anti-corruption investigations of the year are awarded.
Transparency International Ukraine’s team created the Dozorro community. Organized yearly, the Dozorro festival fosters collaboration between organizations involved in public procurement monitoring. They used an “edutainment” approach to stimulate the exchange of experiences between stakeholders (buyers, suppliers, auditors, and civic monitors), discuss challenges, and identify actionable ideas to minimize abuse in public procurement. The event also helps unite the community around a common vision on the key reforms for making procurement open, fair and efficient.
Kiev’s Anti-Corruption Tours, organized by the Institute for the Development of the Regional Press and ACREC, help popularize investigative journalism for a broad audience. Walking in central Kyiv, the tour participants learn how the valuable land under the Arsenal plant in the city center got into private hands or how a new building on Hrushevskoho street, near Mariinsky Park, was stolen for a construction site. They also find out about the fate of the “Yanukovych helipad“; and how white chestnuts differ from red ones and who made money on it. The project’s objective was to create zero tolerance for corruption among citizens.
While public procurement can seem bureaucratic and boring, there is a place for creativity. Kyrgyz journalist and akyn (poet-improviser) Bolot Nazarov, for example, talks about corruption by playing national instruments and singing about illegal tenders and stolen taxpayer money. He posts his videos on YouTube. In January 2022, Akyn Bolot Nazarov and investigative journalist Bolot Temirov were detained by law enforcement officers immediately after releasing content about how the family of the Kyrgyz Head of State Security makes money off procuring Kyrgyz oil. Now both journalists are under investigation in several criminal cases.
In quantum physics, there is an interesting phenomenon called “the observer effect” which says that elementary particles behave differently depending on the presence of an observer. Like elementary particles, civil servants behave differently in a public procurement system with no public data compared to one where detailed data is available.
Journalists can become influential actors in the anti-corruption system by using the data and sharing it through all of the channels at their disposal.
Also, civil society organizations continuously need to find effective ways to draw attention to corruption and hold the powerful – and often wealthy – to account.
So sometimes, to attract attention, unconventional methods must be deployed. As in the case of building a giant pink behind in front of Ukraine’s parliament to highlight their lack of effort in fighting corruption.
PS: On 24 February, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As a result, some of the projects were temporarily suspended or their focus was shifted to the struggle for Ukraine’s independence and democratic values.