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A revolution’s in the air

I joined the Open Contracting Partnership as the Senior Learning Manager a little more than a month ago. After a few years working in corporate America, being back in the nonprofit sector is a bit of a revolution in my life. So it was very fitting that my first deep dive into the world of open contracting should be in Gdansk — a city that bore a democratic revolution that led to a new era of openness and the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

As one of our colleagues described it, public transparency was not ‘an option,’ but a must, in the early post-communist era. In fact, the region saw some remarkable early innovations in revolutionizing public accountability. Countries such as Slovakia and Georgia inspired the early open-by-default work on open contracting by the World Bank and others. So, I was excited to be in the region for a workshop that brought 15 countries together and to learn what’s hot and what’s not in opening up government deals and contracts.

This is a difficult and pivotal time for the region as individuals and organizations are redefining their relationships with civic participation and government accountability. People are out on the streets in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia among other countries, and demanding their governments listen to them and respond to their needs and concerns. However, there are also forces in the region that are working to shut down open government efforts such as the recent Hungarian government attacks on Central European University.

Work on open contracting cannot be done alone by either government or business or civil society. Building relationships between motivated people who can share knowledge and help solve challenges in their areas is vital so we invited representatives from government, CSO, international organizations, and regional NGOs in the workshop. Some brought a wealth of open contracting experience with them, and some were in the beginning stages of their projects. Having all of these groups in the same room to share their experiences, knowledge, and expertise mirrors our mission of busting silos and facilitating connections.

Upon reflecting on the day, I noticed a few themes that were frequently mentioned. What struck me was the similarity of the challenges and needs that people discussed, even though so many different countries were represented. As I’m learning more about open contracting and procurement, I’m learning that while each project will look different from country to country, most projects are built on a common foundation encompassing many of the themes we explored in Gdansk. These concepts seem simple, almost obvious, but the continued discussion of them emphasizes why we need to get them right if we want to catalyze and scale open contracting globally.

So, here’s what stood out most for me:

  1. The revolution in contracting may be have begun a while ago but it hasn’t yet been secured. It’s impressive to learn about how much data is available already throughout many countries, like Georgia, Slovakia and Poland. However, many governments have not yet systematically implemented open contracting processes. Many people expressed challenges with effectively utilizing data to improve outcomes, advocacy and feedback loops. To do this, practitioners in the room agreed that open contracting has to be integrated into the flow of government procurement; it shouldn’t be a separate process that occurs as an afterthought. This often means that people have to change the way that they have done business for years, like altering processes to replace decades-old paper systems with new e-procurement systems and other electronic tools. There is major bureaucratic inertia to be overcome. Even Georgia’s open-by-default process can be undermined by off-system sole-source procurements, and Slovakia’s open contracts register is not properly integrated into the ‘deal flow’ of awarding contracts.
  2. There is a need to make open contracting (even) more exciting. As someone who is fairly new to open contracting, I can tell you that it is absolutely exciting. You likely already know this. However, it does seem as though not everyone fully understands just how impactful open contracting initiatives can be. The desire to continue to foster excitement by raising awareness of the impacts and benefits of open contracting was discussed several times. In Ukraine, as their Prozorro e-procurement system gained traction, Google search hits of 43 procurement-related keywords grew from 680 in the month of January 2015 to more than 191,000 in the month of February 2017. This indicates that as more people learn about, and trust, e-procurement systems, they recognize that this data has value and will demonstrate an active interest, demand and, yes, even excitement, for it.  
  3. Innovation is fueling the revolution. Of course, it’s not just about publishing the data, people must also be able to access and utilize it. We heard about many CSO-led solutions to this. For example, it was only after significant work by Fairplay Alliance and Transparency International Slovakia to educate journalists and watchdogs in how to use the data, that scrutiny in Slovakia really took off. We also learned about, a platform dedicated to collecting and standardizing spending data from across the entire EU. The folks behind are doing the hard work of scrubbing and standardizing data from a number of sources, and then presenting it in a singular location in a visually-interesting and user-friendly way. (In fact, innovation is proving so important, that we’ve just launched an Open Contracting Innovation Challenge. Check it out!)
  4. Corruption could kill the revolution. Revolutions aren’t easy. The status quo, in many places, presents a major challenge to those trying to monitor government spending. It is all too common for CSOs that call for increased transparency to face aggressive pushback by governments. The political environment often can’t be controlled and people expressed challenges in working within the confines of these less-than-hospitable environments. However, the people of this region are no strangers to doing the hard work needed to make real change happen. We heard about how Ukraine’s Prozorro has contributed to a reduction in corruption perception by 25%. There was the acknowledgment that this work can be difficult and discouraging, to be sure, but people are choosing to focus on the fact that it is possible to affect change and, therefore, must continue.
  5. Powerful stories and use cases are needed to keep the revolutionary fires aflame or kindle them anew. All of this work to improve, capture and utilize data, to create a demand for open contracting and to get governments on board with open contracting projects is tough. The case for open contracting must be made, over and over, in unique, compelling and motivating ways. People are asking for ways to show positive results and impact, but also want to balance quantitative results with stories about those successes. To accomplish this, we must create better and more use cases, and share them freely. We must show how citizens benefit from better procurement processes. We are particularly excited to be linking up with Transparency International’s EU-wide work on clean contracting, monitoring over Euro 1bn in spending to this end.  

As was mentioned in our pre-workshop blog, 2017 is an exciting and challenging time for the region. In my conversations with frontline practitioners at the workshop, I heard over and over again that there was real value added in linking everyone together and exchanging what is working and what isn’t. Even though there are so many local innovations, it was surprising to everyone that this type of meeting hasn’t really happened before.

While being together for one day in the historic city of Gdansk we all realized that together we can take our individual innovations much further. It won’t be easy given the current political environment but I got the sense that a(nother) revolution may be in the air…

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