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No more islands of prosperity in a torn society

Seember Nyager, CEO of the Public and Private Development Centre, a Nigerian watchdog group, talks about how public service contracts have affected her own life and highlights opportunities for advancing open contracting in Africa. Contact her at @seember1

I grew up in the beautiful city of Jos, in Plateau State, Nigeria. At the time, Jos was known for its picturesque mountain views and chilled out people. In my experience, Jos was home to a mixed crowd. People from all walks of life bonded and while we recognized wealth, what really formed a bond between people seemed to be vibrant conversations. Different people would often convene in a home that was considered the most enlightened, entertaining, where ideas flowed and it did not matter if it was a garage slum.

I was proud to be from Jos, where the main market, also known as Terminus, was a sight to behold. It provided a commercial boost and source of livelihood to the quiet, charming city and that was good enough for me.

At the time, I did not think much about public services. I grew up fetching water from an underground tank, and I was accustomed to frequent power cuts. I knew that we needed to conserve electricity when it was available, because our lives seemed wired around it. Public transportation was rough but I never really thought twice about it. I never really linked the quality of my life to the contracts behind those services.

But then things changed. On a fateful night in 2002, Terminus was gutted by a fire. Although parts of the original structure still stand, 15 years later, it is yet to be rebuilt. Along with rising insecurity, the closure of West Africa’s biggest indoor market halted commercial activities on the Plateau.

Recognizing the economic importance of Terminus, different government administrations have promised to rebuild it. While the market lies in a state of ruin, we hear allegations in the media of fund mismanagement connected to its reconstruction.  The peace, serenity and tranquility that we once knew evaporated in the flames that burnt down the commercial heart of our city.

Over the years, as the market’s concrete skeleton continued to crumble, we grew older, and we started to make the connection between governance and public services. Campaign promises to improve and restore dilapidated public services is the bait and we get hooked.

The disconnect became clearer: the closer you are to the seat of power, the more likely you are to get public contracts, and if you run a business, a public contract could be your ticket out of poverty. Without an open system of public accountability, public contracts are executed with emphasis on profit maximization at the expense of quality. It is every man for himself and God for us all. We insulate ourselves from the public services we provide.

But sooner or later, we realised that society is a collective and we really can’t be islands of prosperity in a torn society. If the roads don’t lead us to the emergency rooms, the bombs of unfettered conflict may and so it it is in our interest that the hospitals work, and poverty does not trigger insecurity.

We realised why our participation in government is constitutionally guaranteed, and we started to ask questions. What is the contract for the primary health care centre beside my house worth, and what services should it provide? Have the resources been allocated? Who is the contractor, and was she the most competent to complete the job? Is the centre delivering value for money? What other factors and perceptions affect health service delivery and how can we make this work?

Contracting documents usually hold the answers, and we have a constitutional right to see them.

And we need a default system of disclosure to inform any such engagement.

That is why the open contracting commitments made by countries like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are a necessary next step. When we can make sense of procurement and contracting data, we can further explore the best ways to improve public service delivery.

Last year, scoping studies were commissioned for several countries across Africa to ascertain the current levels of readiness to implement open contracting commitments. A few things stand out from these studies. Here are the top opportunities and areas where open contracting interventions should be targeted in 2017. 

Proactive disclosure practices:  Proactive disclosure of procurement information is the bedrock for informed engagement. It needs to be sustained to enhance the momentum for open contracting. Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ghana have hundreds of up-to-date procurement datasets available online, including procurement plans, tender notifications and contract award data. Nigeria publishes high-value contract award data and procurement plans online, but most of these are not for recent contracts. This was not always the case. For several years, the Nigerian procurement authority, the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), ensured that procurement data was available not only online but also in hard copy. These were distributed to public, private and civil society organizations across the country. However, since 2015, most procurement data has usually been obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Use and analysis of procurement data: Proactive disclosure should be accompanied by efforts to encourage use of procurement data. Governments themselves play an important role in using data in their custody to inform decision making, to track the utilization of funds and to document the impact of executed contracts. But this is most effective when procurement data across various stages is standardized and linked. In Nigeria, few procurement datasets are published proactively, but a range of civil society organizations are committed to obtaining procurement data on request and using such information for public engagement and targeted advocacy. Platforms such as Budeshi and Tracka, for example, are being used to follow primary health contracts and constituency projects. Private sector companies such as also run subscription services for tender notices. There, however, does not seem to be as much engagement with procurement data in the African countries where procurement data is more readily available. Very few civil society organizations in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Uganda were aware of the data that was available and so have not used it to inform their advocacy efforts. Without use, the case for proactive disclosure could be weakened.

Standardize and link procurement data:  The mode of publishing data needs to change. We need unique identifiers that link contracting processes from planning to implementation – the Open Contracting Data Standard enables us to achieve this. While it’s encouraging that Uganda has hundreds of datasets available online, procurement plans are not linked to the corresponding tenders, nor are the tenders linked to the contract award data. This makes it impossible to trace any contracting process from its conception to the outcome of the executed contract. This makes data much more difficult to use. The same is true for Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

Integration and coordination among relevant public institutions: Coordination and integration is critical to a sustainable, upgradable open contracting system that spans across the public sector. The contracting cycle often stretches over several public finance institutions, when we take into account budget preparation and contract implementation. Procurement agencies are spearheading open contracting, but they need to liaise closely with other public finance institutions to ensure that data collection and recording is mapped, based on interoperable standards. Without this, linking contractor payments to specified contract deliverables is difficult, for example. Coordination would require the relevant stakeholders to carry each other along as they design, build and deploy their public finance structures.

Openness to feedback: We must be prepared to be perceived differently by different people. The scoping studies revealed a tendency for feedback to be treated with suspicion from both government and civil society. In dire cases, it was seen as an attack on government or civil society, depending on what side of the fence you stand. But, regardless of our sectors of primary engagement, we have a common goal which is collective prosperity as a people. For that reason, we may need to learn to accommodate feedback on the way we work and use it constructively to advance our shared vision of improved public accountability for better lives.

This is my conviction about open contracting: regardless of our motivations, its implementation can radically change the way business is done in Nigeria and across Africa. If well implemented, it can reduce incidences and perceptions of corruption; can motivate contractors, public servants, and civil society organizations to be more responsible in their actions; and in the process, encourage innovation and ultimately improve public services. By opening up the contracting space, we create room for informed dialogue and get to the bottom of some of our most challenging problems – and then we find ways to deal with them. Lasting, collective prosperity on the continent can only happen when we leave our islands.  

And so my expectation for 2017 is that every step taken by any stakeholder, in any country, will provide strategic footing to deepen or embed open contracting in the way public procurement is conducted across the African continent. We will standardize, publish and use data. We will work together. We will Budeshi.

Budeshi means “open it” in Hausa, a local language in Nigeria.

Photo: Main market in Jos. Koreboy (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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