At 2 am on Saturday morning, the day after the 10th Conference of the States Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) was meant to end in Atlanta, exhausted negotiators finally adopted a resolution on Promoting transparency and integrity in public procurement in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
We should pay credit to the remarkable tenacity and leadership from the French government who proposed the resolution and who pushed for the most ambitious and inclusive set of norms possible, even in a very challenging geopolitical environment.
Although public procurement is government’s number one corruption risk, this is the first time in 20 years since the original Convention was drafted that there has been a dedicated resolution on the topic. So it was important to set the bar high and to ensure our vision of procurement as a modern, digital open data-driven public service was strongly reflected. We worked closely with the superb UNCAC Coalition of civil society groups to mobilize States Parties to support this objective, as part of an ambitious agenda shaped by civil society voices at the Conference.
We were part of more than 100 civil society organizations from over 60 countries who set out what a strong resolution that could materially advance the status quo should look like. Here’s our checklist:
Let’s have a look at whether the final text meets the level of ambition set out by civil society.
1) A single coherent rulebook on public procurement – partial win
Paragraph 1 of the resolution “urges States parties to develop easily and publicly accessible, clear, transparent and consistent public procurement laws, regulations and procedures … to consolidate them domestically, as appropriate, and to make them available online in a timely manner.” Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 build on this especially around training and support for procurement officials and preventing conflicts of interest which is also fundamental to integrity in procurement.
We like the reference to training “with specific reference to resolving real-life situations” in paragraph 5 and to “effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal or non-criminal sanctions, including where appropriate, debarment” for companies committing bribery in paragraph 15.
2) Transparent procurement – win
Paragraph 7 is a bullseye in terms of good public procurement rules as it “emphasizes the need for States parties to ensure open, equitable and fair competitive tendering processes by publishing clear selection criteria and methods for awards, and recommends that strict and limited criteria be established to delineate exceptions to competitive tendering processes and that such exceptions be publicly disclosed.” We are pleased to see “equitable” used to describe the tendering processes which implies moving beyond lowest price to foster economic inclusion.
3) An integrated, electronic procurement system (e-GP) – win
Paragraph 8 “encourages States parties, in accordance with the fundamental principles of their domestic law, to design and make use, where appropriate and within their means, of integrated electronic procurement systems that collect, manage, simplify, standardize and publish open data on the whole procurement cycle, in a timely manner and in a user-friendly format”. We especially like the “full cycle of public procurement” being recognized which speaks to understanding both the planning and implementation phases of public contracting which are vital to better outcomes and delivery, not just their narrow tendering and award processes.
4) Open data – win
Paragraph 8 is very clear, and we are especially pleased to see the language on the need to “standardize and publish” open data being directly linked to the functioning of the e-GP system, which we believe is the shortest and smoothest way to quality open data from procurement. We know that certain governments were allergic to mentioning specific standards, such as the OCDS, so we think this was a good compromise by the French government to keep everyone pointed in the right direction and focused on outcomes vs specific data formats.
Paragraph 24(b) which is about future actions, reinforces this with a call to the UNODC for ”identification of relevant open standards” as part of its follow-up on distilling best practices.
5) Civic participation – partial win
Paragraph 17 encourages states “to foster transparency through effective and inclusive public participation across the whole public procurement cycle” and paragraph 19 contains a clear reference to “acting upon public feedback and civic monitoring.” While the resolution text is strong, it could have been possible to go further if the forum were more open to civil society.
The topic of civil society and public participation remains sadly contentious at the Conference of States Parties to the UNCAC, with more authoritarian states objecting to the participation of some NGOs, and a hard-fought vote on CSO participation, which was thankfully won. The US-led Atlanta Declaration focused squarely on accountability and the role of non-state actors in the fight against corruption.
6) Beneficial ownership – loss
Unfortunately, there was no link between beneficial ownership and public procurement data in the resolution. But the good news here is that the Nigerian resolution on “Enhancing the use of beneficial ownership information to strengthen asset recovery” urged countries “to take measures to facilitate access to beneficial ownership information by domestic public procurement authorities” in paragraph 8. This is a start, and it is of vital importance that governments and citizens know who they’re doing business with using public funds, so we hope to encourage more work in this area on the global anticorruption agenda.
7) Gender and inclusion – partial win
Paragraph 21 encourages state parties “to adopt procurement policies which … promote fair competition in particular regarding the award of public contracts to micro, small and medium enterprises and businesses owned by women and persons in vulnerable situations.”
This was a win in the context of a fraught UNCAC where other efforts to explore the connection between gender and the experiences of marginalized groups was hotly contested, and ultimately watered down across the board, as evidenced by the title of Ghana’s resolution designed to focus on gender addressing the wider “societal impacts of corruption”. But much like the environment for discussions of civil society participation, it’s very clear that further efforts must be made to embrace and understand the intersection of the power dynamics behind corruption and the lens of gender and equity more broadly in this space.
8) Actions not words – win
Declarations are nice but actions are even better so it is good that the resolution offers a clear set of next steps. Again we are very pleased to see an emphasis on the whole cycle, change management and open standards: In paragraph 23, calls upon the UNODC and others to collect and distill global best practices on “ the prevention and detection of corruption during the whole procurement cycle, including through the use of technology” and to “analyze … the information received with a view to developing … step-by-step guidelines on the adoption and use of technology in procurement, including on appropriate change-management best practices and the identification of relevant open standards.”
At 6 wins out of 8, it’s a stronger set of norms than we had hoped and a good basis to push for better, more accountable public spending in the UN’s wider work to implement the SDGs, including for the Financing for Development Conference in 2025 and around green accountability for climate finance.
The resulting guidelines, case studies and follow-up work are clear next steps. Vive la France for their leadership on advancing the resolution: we’re committed to turning those words into practice and delivering impact, putting openness and accountability at the heart of public procurement.