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Towards data-driven infrastructure transparency

Roads, railways, airports, water distribution, electricity transmission, building schools and hospitals: in most countries, you will find hundreds of active infrastructure projects in planning, construction or operation. With billions of dollars of public and private funds invested in these projects every year, estimates suggest that between 10 and 30% of that investment is lost due to inefficiency, mismanagement, and corruption. CoST — the Infrastructure Transparency Initiative — has been working over the last six years to place on the spotlight on infrastructure projects, developing a model of transparency and oversight based around country-level multi-stakeholder groups committed to improving disclosure and monitoring around projects.

In the past, monitoring infrastructure projects has been a document-driven process, periodically gathering information on a handful of the active projects, and carrying out review and validation activities to produce a report on each project. More recently, several countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi and Costa Rica have introduced legal reforms that mandate disclosure based on the CoST Infrastructure Data Standard that has led to the publication of data on almost 7,500 infrastructure projects in the last twelve months. Now, with the rise of data-enabled accountability, CoST and the Open Contracting Partnership are exploring how infrastructure scrutiny can further scale up and support these reforms.

Take SISOCS for example: the platform created in Honduras that now hosts data on hundreds of transport and other infrastructure projects. Backed by legal reforms that mandate disclosure, the platform is regularly updated by government agencies with project and contract details as well as original documents related to their infrastructure projects, and capturing detailed data points on contract values, locations, and suppliers. In Ukraine, the national CoST Secretariat has created a similar platform, replacing spreadsheet-based reporting with a central online tool.

At present, both platforms require direct entry of information on each of the contracts related to an infrastructure project, potentially duplicating data in national e-procurement systems. But, through the use of the Open Contracting Data Standard, it should become possible to directly import information on tender, award and contract stages. By adding links to government finance systems and, where useful, creating infrastructure information portals, there is the further possibility of leveraging existing data to see the whole contracting process.

Making the link between procurement and project monitoring systems has another benefit: it can support checks on compliance with project-level reporting requirements. For example, if the procurement data from a ministry of roads shows 250 high-value contracts for construction, but only 200 are recorded on an information platform, this might highlight a compliance gap. Producing reports of this sort will require a clear approach to linking contracts and projects within procurement and monitoring systems, and this will be a key focus of the upcoming Open Contracting Partnership/CoST collaboration.

By connecting infrastructure project-level information, with information on individual contracts, we are also able to better explore the whole cycle from planning through to the final close of contracts. In many construction and infrastructure projects, contractors provide guarantees that may last many years after construction is complete. In many of the sources of contracting data we’ve worked with to date, the updates end when the award is made, or when the last payment against a contract is processed. Linking procurement and infrastructure monitoring platforms gives us a view of every stage.

The shift from document-driven to data-driven oversight is not just a change in scale. We anticipate it also involves a shift in the emphasis of reporting, with impacts on how the CoST Infrastructure Data Standard might be implemented. For example, whilst a document-driven process might periodically review contract changes, and provide a narrative justification — in a data-driven process drawing on live systems variations could be captured on a week-by-week basis, yet without detailed justifications. Instead of producing deep and detailed narrative reports on a handful of projects, a data-driven approach may provide an overview of hundreds of projects, enabling selection of a targeted few for the deep-dive exploration.

Yet, as experience from Honduras shows, a move to data-driven analysis doesn’t mean we forget documents. Although the monitors and analysts at CoST Honduras relish detailed data to work with — civil society monitors want to see contract texts. One of the most popular features of SISOCS with local users is the ‘evidence’ tab, providing downloadable copies all the reports, assessments and updates on the projects local to them.

Over the next few months, CoST and OCP will be sharing more on a joint work plan to create updated standards and guidance for putting open contracting for infrastructure into practice.

Photo: Willie Heinz, 2004 (IDB). Laying down fiber optic cable. Honduras

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