Challenge: Albania’s process for suppliers to make complaints about public contracting was slow, expensive, and opaque.
Open contracting approach: The government, led by the Public Procurement Commission (PPC), introduced new legislation and an electronic system that allowed suppliers to submit complaints online and for the PPC to manage the process digitally and openly. The PPC published new procurement complaints in real-time on its website along with machine-readable open data tracking their progress. It also now publishes PDF copies of decisions dating back to 2010. Nationwide training and outreach campaigns are helping develop the skills of suppliers and contracting authorities to use the system.
Results: Fewer PPC decisions are appealed in court, halving from 10% in 2020 to 4-5% as of July 2022. Suppliers who use the e-complaints system save an estimated $300 – $1000. Fewer PPC decisions are late: halving from 2020 to 2022 (22.8% to 9.8%). The electronic system was used for 35% of complaints during the voluntary transition period, including by 12 suppliers who made complaints for the first time. The new online archive of complaints and the openness in PPC’s operations is building trust among stakeholders: 74.6% of economic operators think the system is more efficient, while 82.3% say it increases fairness when handling complaints.
Complaints from businesses who bid on government tenders are a valuable way of detecting corruption and other issues in the public procurement system and promoting fair competition. If not managed well and transparently, they can also unnecessarily delay critical decisions and the implementation of contracts. In Albania until recently, suppliers who wanted to make complaints about government contracting procedures needed a lot of patience and deep pockets.
Before 2021, the whole process was done in person and on paper. Imagine a business owner in a town in the north wanted to make a complaint against a contracting authority in the south. First, they would have to travel to the contracting authority and give them a printed copy of the complaint, a dossier that is typically hundreds of pages long. Then they would have to travel to the capital, Tirana, pay a processing fee at a bank, and hand in the receipt along with the complaint at the Public Procurement Commission’s office, during certain visiting hours. What’s more, in around one out of three cases, the authorities wouldn’t review the complaint before the official deadline.
This bureaucracy cost business owners who made complaints an estimated $300 – $1000 a year, according to a survey conducted by the Public Procurement Commission, in a country where the average monthly salary is about $450 (calculation: economic operators typically submitted 5-10 complaints annually and each one costs $50).
It also created tedious work for staff at the PPC, who had to check mountains of paperwork manually, increasing the risk of making mistakes. These files take up three entire rooms in the PPC’s office in the heart of Tirana’s government district.
But a new electronic complaints system is cutting through the red tape. Since the start of 2021, economic operators can file complaints online by logging on to e-Albania, the government’s one-stop website for accessing public services. This has eliminated costs beyond the processing fee worth 0.5% of the procedure’s value, which is designed to deter abuse of the system and refunded if the complaint is accepted. Using the e-complaints system has saved economic operators an estimated $50,000 in transportation costs, more than 2,200 liters of fuel, and 11,000 pieces of paper.
The PPC’s review process is digital too, with public servants using a case management system to document their decision meetings and outcomes in real time.
It’s not only more efficient, but also significantly more transparent, explains the PPC’s Chairperson Jonaid Myzyri. All new complaints and decisions are published on the PPC’s public website immediately. Users can set simple search filters and download the data in JSON format. It’s also the first government site in Albania with accessibility features for users with visual impairments.
For a transitional period since mid-2021, use of the new system has been voluntary. Some 35% of complaints have been submitted electronically, out of 1400 total, and 12 economic operators submitted complaints for the first time.
“We have a lot more confidence now, because we have [foot]prints of every step that we make in the system, and every step that the contracting authority makes in the system,” says Eni Jordhani, a lawyer at a Tirana-based ICT firm, Communication Progress, which has been participating in the public procurement market for more than 20 years. “And the Public Procurement Commission can view every step being made through the process. Everything is a lot more transparent.”
Other economic operators and PPC staff say the new system makes their lives easier, according to research conducted by the commission.
Top findings from 2022 Public Procurement Commission user surveys
- 93% of 55 surveyed companies agree that more transparency encourages businesses to participate in public procurement
- 82% say the electronic complaint system increases fairness when handling complaints and making decisions about them
- 76% say the electronic complaint system is more time efficient for businesses compared to the analog system
- Companies with more experience in public procurement complaint significantly less
- 97% of 92 website visitors surveyed say the information provided makes the complaint process more transparent and informative, and the same share say the information provided as open data is useful for data analysis and/or other analytical purposes
- 92% of them say the information provided on the website helped them better understand the process of submitting a complaint
- 73% of 11 PPC staff surveyed say switching to open data has made the PPC’s work and mission more effective; 100% agree that with the new complaint system, they can handle more complaints within the legal deadline; and 90% agree that the new system has improved and increased the communication with economic operators
The decision-making process is faster too. It takes 12 days on average to review a complaint compared to 20 days in 2020. The share of complaints reviewed after the legal deadline have been steadily declining, from 22.8% in 2020, to 10.8% in 2021, and 9.8% as of July 2022.
Building on experience: the foundation for open contracting reform
This e-complaints system is the cornerstone of an open contracting reform that has seen the PPC adopt technology ensuring all actors in the complaints process comply with the public procurement laws and regulations. There has also been a shift in mindset at the agency to encourage openness by promptly sharing public information, training suppliers to make better complaints, and creating spaces to engage with them and receive their feedback.
The inspiration for the reform came from Myzyri’s own pain point. Before becoming Chair of the PPC, he worked as an inspector at the agency, investigating economic operators’ complaints, which can relate to any part of the contracting process from the tendering, to awarding, and implementation. He wondered why the complaints were still done on paper, when Albania had been using e-procurement to conduct the rest of the contracting process since 2009 – one of the first countries in the Balkans and Europe to do so.
Over the years, Myzyri reached out to the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) for support in turning this idea into reality. When he was appointed Chairperson of the Public Procurement Commission in July 2020, he didn’t waste any time getting the project off the ground. The website was ready in April 2021. The system went live on 27 Oct 2021. Funded by the Albanian government, the project cost less than $2 million, including support for four years. They can expect a good return on investment: in 2021, PPC decisions on complaints generated €1 million for the state budget. This income is generated through a fee charged to economic operators when they make a complaint, which equals 0.5% of the total contracting procedure’s value. If the complaint is successful, the fee is refunded. If it is unsuccessful, the money goes towards the state budget.
Myzyri not only recognized that digitizing the complaints process would remove friction for those involved, but that the complaints themselves provided valuable information for third parties – such as media, NGOs, and other interested economic operators – who might wish to gain insights into the procurement system.
This information would be even more accessible if the cases included machine-readable data. For example, from 2010 to 2020, the PPC website only published four data fields about complaints: the complainant, the contracting authority, the scope of the procurement procedure, and the final decision. Now it publishes 19 fields with important data related to the complaint, including the name and ID of the contracting authority and economic operator, the procurement type, CVP code (a common classification system used in procurement), the reason for the complaint, and the processing fee paid.
The complaints system links to Albania’s national business registry and the public procurement system so some of these fields are populated automatically.
According to the PPC website, there were 768 complaints for 2021, and 650 complaints for 2022 up to 31 October. Complaints in 2021 that received a decision accounted for 9.2% of the total published procurement budget, or ALL 13 billion (US$114 million). Out of 5079 procurement procedures published last year (excluding auctions and concessions), complaints were filed with the PPC for 566 or 11% of them.
There is also a historical decisions register that includes more than 9000 cases dating back to 2010. These are not yet in a machine-readable format, but PPC plans to do this in the future.
Finally, a support section includes user manuals in Albanian and English and training videos.
The monitoring site is gaining traction, with around 50,000 monthly users in June 2022 compared to 13,000 in October 2021 when the new registries were launched.
Myzyri finds this encouraging. “We need to increase public trust in using funds. We need to be transparent, because only in this way can we find which are the problems in the system and how we can solve the problems,” he says.
Improving decisions with better data
Almost all (over 98%) of complaints relate to public procurement procedures, which are regulated by the public procurement law, but there are also complaints for other processes regulated by special law, including auctions, mining permits, public-private partnerships, defense procurement, and earthquake reconstruction procurement. As of November 2022, there are seven categories of complaints: the most common is tender evaluation, followed by tender documents, other, negotiation without prior notification, reopening bidding for framework agreements, cancellation and contract invalidity. Most complaints relate to procedures in Tirana (69%), followed by Fier (5%) and Durrës (3%).
Improving the quality of complaints is another priority for PPC, as well as using the complaints to address common issues in the procurement process. A series of online and in-person initiatives are helping to achieve this. For the first time the PPC hosted conferences gathering hundreds of contracting authorities and economic operators, and another with the judge of the court of appeal. The topics for the conference are decided by analyzing the data to identify pain points and problem sectors, for example infrastructure or health. They traveled across Albania to train over 1200 future users of the system, and plan to run training annually to account for new economic operators. Monthly bulletins are sent to all economic operators and contracting authorities, featuring the latest decisions and advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes. The PPC co-ran a course with the University of Tirana, and has a small public library at the PPC office.
“By publishing all the decisions based on an open data format, all the information is public. It’s easier for people to check what has happened in different cases, and we can see that the quality of the decisions has definitely increased, because the economic operators are using past PPC decisions to formulate their complaints,” says Myzyri. It also makes the PPC more accountable, because it’s clear if decisions are consistent across cases, he adds.
The share of PPC decisions that are appealed in court has declined steadily from 9.8% in 2020 to 7.8% in 2021 and 4-5% as of 1 July 2022 (or 18 cases out of around 400).
In September 2022, PPC won a prestigious OECD SIGMA/ ReSPA prize in public administration for increasing public trust. The reform was also recognized among the top 15 innovations globally by the GovTech Summit.
OCP supported the PPC with training, advice on reform design and cheerleading PPC’s work within international platforms and partnerships. It also helped publish existing data as OCDS and to plan for more comprehensive publication in the near future.
The next big challenge will be making the changes permanent. The PPC is working with the public procurement agency and council of ministers towards adopting legislation that will make use of the e-complaints system mandatory from 2023.
The PPC is continuously working on expanding the quality and coverage of the data (including audio records of decision meetings) and plans to link the system to the Court of Appeals and Treasury to improve tracking of complaints and processing fees from start to finish.
“We are not only choosing to be open as required by law but what international practices recommend.”
Finally, the PPC are creating opportunities to exchange ideas and learn from other countries, including convening a network of public procurement review bodies from eight countries in the Western Balkans and Southern Europe.
“These changes give us two big lessons,” adds Myzyri. “First, sometimes small countries can do big things. Secondly, governments can be inspired by NGOs, because we’ve been inspired by the Open Contracting Partnership and our collaboration has been highly beneficial for our system.”