As I rolled off the strange space buses (a.k.a mobile lounges) at Dulles airport to begin my new role running the Open Contracting Partnership in Washington, DC, I found myself in need of some reassurance that my new gig actually makes sense.
I had a long wait in the immigration queue to think about it.
Government contracting (from deal making, through to contracting, through to implementation) is dull, dull, dull. You could argue that it is meant to be dull: the last thing anyone wants are surprises. When the subject does get the public attention, it is normally bad news: government and contractors running amok with citizen’s money with disastrous results for ordinary people.
We all know the stories from ‘tofu’ schools that fall down on children, hospital equipment that kills patients, billions of dollars misappropriated through secret deals in the oil and mining industries, the billions of dollars in IFFs lost from Africa each year from unequal contracts ‘shrouded in secrecy’, to Olympic construction boondoggles and outrageous mark-ups on cost-plus contracts in U.S. warzones.
But contracting is also absolutely vital: it touches every part of the lives of people. It is the final mile of delivering real goods and services that people actually care about such as schools, hospitals and roads. It is the bricks and mortar of public benefit.
There is a long-standing narrative about public procurement that is all about compliance. I don’t think that is actually what is really important. I see the narrative instead as about public benefit through innovation, greater efficiency, a better business environment, improved service delivery and enhanced corporate accountability. If we can’t get this bit of government operations right, then very little done upstream on wider reforms will seems tangible and real to people.
For that reason, I believe the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) has a unique value proposition. Our goal is actually to make contracting deliver what it has always promised: a sound, fair process that delivers the best results on the ground. It cannot do that unless it is open, honest and responsive.
If (it’s a big if) we can open up the entire contracting process and bring these three parties together coherently and effectively, we could transform outcomes on the ground. For the first time ever, governments could share effective data on tenders, how contracts will be awarded, who won, how they won, what the contract was, and how its implementation is going.
Companies can actually see what business opportunities are coming up, what the resultant contracts might look like, and what they will have to deliver. Allied to a fairer allocation process – both from improved explanation of the rules and from public scrutiny of how the rules are applied – we should see more access to government contracts from smaller businesses. This is not only great for the economy but great for competition too, meaning more money saved for government.
Civil society could also get actionable information on where the money is going and what results have been promised for that spending. People will only use that data if it connects directly to the things that they care about; and contracting could be one of these as we are really talking about schools, roads and hospitals, etc. If there is a process, then, to do something about that information – to close the loop and make sure problems identified get fixed – people will see a tangible benefit from engaging.
I explained a very redux version of this to the border guard who was scrutinizing my visa: “Hi Sir, I am opening government, bringing companies and civil society to the table to help shape better and fairer deals from government contracting to avoid scandals, boost competition, save money and getting better results on the ground”.
“Hmm, sounds good” he smiled, stamping my forms, before adding ominously: “…good luck with that”.
We will need it, there will be huge vested interests in our way. If it was easy, someone would have done it already. We believe that together with our advisory board, global and local partners and OCP champions, we can make a difference. Many of you are already working on contracting issues in many different countries and sector: we can support you with tools, resources, connections and evidence to take our efforts to the next level. In turn, you can also be part of this growing global movement.
The coming weeks will be crucial for us as we craft a plan to actually test out our fine sounding theories around open contracting. We aren’t just talking about data portals here: we want to see real world results of the use of that data; Better schools, hospitals and roads.
From next week, I won’t be alone in delivering this. I am delighted to announce that Kathrin Frauscher is joining me as our Director of Programs. Kathrin was key in delivering the Open Contracting program within the World Bank. She has now chosen to take a pay cut to join us directly to shape our work on the ground. Her savvy, her professionalism and her ability to deliver results fast will be key to our progress over coming months. It’s an absolute pleasure to work with someone as talented as her.
At this early stage, we aren’t pretending we have all the answers. We are going to have to innovate and iterate furiously, fail fast and learn lessons and share them with others quickly. Therefore, we want to encourage all of you to join the movement and share your ideas or insights with me. We want to mobilize and support governments, citizens and businesses to prove that trillions of dollars of public money can be better spent.
We will reach out to many of you over the coming weeks to get your ideas and input on how we can best do that. If you have ideas or insights for me or the OCP, please do reach out. You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org, so drop me a line and I look forward to hearing from you.
Please access our presentation on the Open Contracting Theory of Change here: