Unmasking emergency procurement: How we published 37,000 European COVID-19 related tenders
The pandemic caught the world unprepared. Suddenly dropped into a state of emergency, governments shut down, and focused on buying masks and ventilators. But when they did so, they also shut down competition and transparency in public procurement.
The wild chase for life saving equipment too often resembled a Monty Python sketch. The Czech government, as any other government in Europe at the time, came under immense pressure to procure COVID-19 related equipment. Czech ministers, all wearing a bright red sweater, awarded multiple contracts for more than €23 million worth of FFP2 respirator masks without competition. But instead of respirators with 95% particle filtration capacity, Czech hospital personnel received plain surgical masks with no filtration capacity at all. At €0.20 per respirator it initially seemed like a good deal. Incidentally – the same government also bought FFP2 respirators for €37 per piece – perhaps to be sure they are the right kind.
Respirator masks, ventilators, and protective equipment were suddenly the number one most wanted goods on the continent, creating an anomalous situation: Instead of companies competing to supply the government, governments competed against each other. In order to buy fast, governments were awarding contracts directly. In a competitive market, it would probably have become clear that 20 cents was probably just too good of a deal for an FFP2 respirator.
For journalists to be able to tell this story, the Czech Republic had to make their purchases available openly. This was easy because the country was already publishing information about government contracts. However, not every European government does. Not even most of them. That’s why OCCRP set out to collect all possible data on pandemic buying in Europe together with a team of journalists from 36 countries. Read the result of our analysis.
Lithuania, Portugal, and Slovenia were also publishing COVID-19 related procurement. Some even including the price per unit of equipment. In a few countries, such as Slovakia or the Czech Republic public procurement contracts are open by default. But Belgium, the Netherlands or Denmark did not publish any of their pandemic buying and refuse to do so until this day. Similarly, the European Commission has been reluctant to release all documents related to procurements worth a couple of billion Euro after our FOIA request that took them 6 months to complete.
Here, I’d like to share how we collected the data, share examples of the stories our partners were able to publish, and suggest where to look next as we move into the distribution of the vaccine.
The data we were able to collect came in many formats and amounts: written contracts, websites, and tables of various formats. A key step for us was to standardized the data into two large tables and published them for everybody to access and use. Both data sets contain product categories that were added manually so that researchers can filter tenders, contracts, and unit prices for particular products such as protective equipment, tests, ventilators and compare them across borders.
- 38.000 COVID-19 related tenders: tender data
- Unit prices : price per unit of equipment
We have also prepared a Jupyter notebook for anybody interested in doing their own analysis.
The biggest bulk of the data comes from Portugal’s local tender website BAZ (15.000 contracts, scraped and cleaned by Publico.pt). Another 10.000 contracts come from the Russian tender database. A big source was also Europe’s centralized tenders database (TED). Many countries provided data through their national websites in e.g. Lithuania, Moldova, Spain, Czech Republic (hlidacstatu.cz), Poland, and Slovakia. In Sweden and Italy our reporters succeeded with a FOIA request. In Austria some data was leaked to the press.
Using the following tables you can explore tenders and contracts by size, and aggregated suppliers data:
- The top one percent largest contracts and tenders
- The 50 biggest suppliers
What can I find?
When you investigate public procurement, especially in an emergency, you will want to compare prices and understand who is behind the companies supplying the products. This will allow you to understand whether the company is well suited to do the job and whether there are any conflicts of interests.
Widespread phenomenons in COVID-19 related spending were political party links and use of new companies: In a story from our OCCRP partner in the UK, a company whose director was a donor to one of the main political parties was contracted for €150 million to deliver overpriced ventilators. In Slovakia, journalists at SME found that companies not older than 2 months were handed out millions of supply contracts, some of them severely overpriced.
We’ve prepared the data so that it can be combined with other data sets. In combination with a company registry (or opencorporates.com), the data can provide insights into how much of the award money went to companies based in tax havens. If you register for Aleph, OCCRP’s database of leaks and public records, you can search if a company made an appearance in leaks such as the Panama Papers. Combining the data with trade data, such as Panjiva or Eurostat (under “International trade” > “International trade in goods of COVID-19 medical supplies”) could reveal additional insights into the data. For example, from the volume of traded goods you can try to approximate how much data might be missing from the published tenders data.
What can’t I find?
Some European countries are still refusing to publish any data about their pandemic buying. If you are interested in this data, you can try to use the Freedom of Information laws in your country to request the data from the government. Sometimes you can ask for more specific information. Our Swedish reporter asked for contract data on a municipal level and got it released (they are included in our dataset).
In France and Germany, we were only able to include the large contracts that are above the threshold that require them to be published to the European tenders database TED. This means that likely a lot of the information on the spending in these countries is missing if we take other countries as an example. The vast majority of the tenders in the EU are below this publication threshold. In Portugal, for example, our partners Publico found that the biggest COVID-19 equipment supplier was a company that supplied a lot of smaller contracts. These smaller tenders are missing from our data for half of the countries.
Unfortunately, we didn’t always get what we asked for. Norway released their pandemic spending contracts to our reporter, but has refused to disclose the prices. Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark have actively refused to publish their contracts at all.
The pandemic is far from over. While vaccination is slowly picking up speed – cases are still higher than in the spring in most of the countries. That makes it imperative to keep monitoring government contracts and expenditures, and demand transparency in the process. COVID-19 related spending has shifted from mass purchasing of ventilators to buying COVID-19 tests, and is now moving to the distribution of the vaccine. Who are the suppliers, what are their prices, and are they delivering?
As countries are starting to prepare for the recovery, stimulating investment into public works and infrastructure will become a critical policy effort. While we rightly still have to focus on emergency procurement and the pandemic, we will need to keep watch on traditional procurement as well.
Photo: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP