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2021 Strategy Refresh: Procurement lessons from the pandemic highlight the urgency of our work

Our world runs on public contracts. During the pandemic, we all experienced what it means if a government can’t buy and deliver life-saving medical supplies quickly, effectively, and equitably. 

Governments around the world struggled with slow, out-dated, paper-based procurement. But there were bright spots: reformers who invested in open data, who had put clear policies and oversight mechanisms in place, and who were open to civil society and private sector collaboration achieved better results and had more resilient supply chains. Earlier this month, the G7 recognized exactly this. 

We were able to support and document some great examples from Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Lithuania, Paraguay, Moldova, and Ukraine

Although our existing strategy served us well during this extraordinary period, we’ve been thinking hard about both the lessons learned and how to make sure we ‘win’ the recovery given surging demand for our support. You can read our full strategy update here

We had a number of inputs to help us think these through, including our largest ever global community survey at the end of the 2020 (with over 260 responses), many partner conversations, and a series of workshops where we specifically sought out the views from unusual suspects and newer partners with whom we first worked in the last year.

Here are our five key ideas: 

1) Mission: Embed equity, dignity, and sustainability into post-pandemic procurement 

Procurement is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That purpose is often lost in a compliance- and paper-based, user-unfriendly process. The fact that governments had to jump to special, emergency procedures to bypass the usual bureaucracy during the pandemic is a clue to how inefficient our systems are. 

Worse, procurement is embedded in larger, often antiquated public financial management policies and systems that reinforce existing inequities and exclusion. Procurement is more likely to perpetuate the status quo than to challenge it. Failures disproportionately harm those already suffering from persistent inequities or who are marginalized.

How the government does business is crucial to economic empowerment and inclusion, especially as we seek to rebuild the devastated small business sector after the pandemic. It is equally key to unlocking innovation in the public services as we reimagine healthcare and tackle climate change. Just think of the economic differences in a city like Austin, which estimates that doing procurement differently could result in over 40% of the city’s contracts being spent with historically disadvantaged or excluded businesses (versus less than 10% currently). It’s about better planning and co-operative design of services with people to drive economic equity and inclusion. Similarly, we won’t address climate change unless we radically change how we buy things. 

Unless we plan for these outcomes at the start of our engagements and ‘think different’ with partners, they are unlikely to happen. And to do so we should center the dignity, agency, and lived experience of everyone who is impacted by procurement — from civil servants to citizens.

So we reframed our mission — OCP “opens up and transforms government contracting to make it fairer and better” — and we are adopting new impact targets specifically on equity and sustainability. We’ll be retooling our advocacy and support to center user needs and help us and partners achieve these outcomes. Which leads us very neatly onto…

2) Implementation: Making our Lift impact accelerator a central offer from OCP 

Procurement reform is often a hard and lonely undertaking by a small group of champions inside or outside of government, and it can be challenging to connect their reforms to a clear vision of impact. We designed our Lift impact accelerator program to help with exactly that. 

Lift intensively supports teams of reformers to shape a clear goal, achieve strong political buy-in, and build diverse skills covering technical, political and institutional change to get to that transformation of frontline services. 

Lift has exceeded our expectations: in the past two years, we have seen about double the metrics on engagement and results that we had planned. Lift also positioned our partners well to pivot to address emergency procurement when the pandemic hit

Partners told us that having a competitive program with a brand around it helped them leverage their membership to get more political and institutional buy-in, and that the most valuable part of the support has been on change management and reform planning. We’ve just launched the second cohort of the program, with more than 100 applications from 70 countries. 

Based on this huge continued demand, we plan to make Lift a cornerstone of our programming, and to run larger and more ambitious Lift cohorts in the future. Starting in 2022 we will more than double our Lift cohort, and work with up to 15 teams through Lift. 

3) Advocacy: Building power to change the system

We really saw the power of directly funding and supporting local civil society advocacy and monitoring efforts during the pandemic. Our study of IMF rapid credit facility commitments to procurement transparency confirmed that reforms had the most impact when there was an existing community of reformers who were fixing the system rooted in their own needs, and who were then able to use the IMF leverage to push through inertia and vested interests blocking them at home. This study confirmed that strong civil society partners, and not always top-down mandates, are a better predictor of success in implementing procurement reforms.

There is more we can do to continue supporting local advocacy to build countervailing power for change and strengthen civic monitoring for the recovery.  We will be increasing staff support and resources to this end, offering both coaching, tag team national to international advocacy support and a new rapid ‘grants’ facility to support partners to seize compelling opportunities to shift the status quo. 

We will also expand and deepen our direct engagement with the OECD, international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and G7 governments to encourage stronger global examples of open contracting best practice. To this end, we have increased our focus on driving open contracting innovation and leadership across the US and we are honored to have Reilly Martin join us from the City of Boston to lead our U.S. program.

4) Data: Less immediate standardization, more immediate value

We can better tailor our support for open data publication to partners’ digital maturity, helping partners get quicker wins on using the data that they have, rather than promoting standardization as the first step. 

The Open Contracting Data Standard will still be a central offer from OCP with our helpdesk working with a continuously growing number of publishers and a large number of tools that are building on standardized data supporting it. But in some contexts, we’ve found that converting and standardizing information can distract from other immediate wins. 

We can better meet partners where they are in their data journey. During the pandemic, for example, it was more valuable to help partners tag, publish, and track what data they had in their systems rather than focus on the exact form or standard for publication. We don’t want implementing the OCDS to become a ‘gate’ to working with us and getting valuable open data out there. 

We are also planning to further nurture the broader ecosystem of OCDS-ready tools to help partners get even more value when they do publish to OCDS. Authored by both commercial and non-commercial providers, publishers should, for example, be able to ‘plug in’ their data and get analysis from a BI (business intelligence) module, red flags and KPIs. We will also explore radical new ideas such as a modular, scalable open source e-procurement system, building on the great work done in Ukraine and Moldova in their reforms. Hat tip to the Lithuanian government who are going to explore this in their post-pandemic procurement reforms based on how much data helped them coordinate their emergency response. 

5) Community: More intentional, regional, targeted community building 

Based on partner feedback, we will put more focus on regional community building based on shared geographies and shared outcomes, and we will be setting ourselves new targets focused on empowerment and belonging. 

Increased impact

We’ve put these ideas at the center of a brief refresh of our current strategy. We have also upped our impact targets and, if we get this right, we can touch more lives than ever before with our work. By centering on the needs and voices of users, practitioners, and citizens in our work, we hope to make our shared vision for better and outcomes-driven procurement a reality, with inclusive approaches that put the dignity of everyone front and center.

… And a spin out from our fiscal sponsor to put ourselves on the frontline

Becoming our own independent non-profit organization is another step in our organizations – and the open contracting community’s – coming-of-age journey. 

We are very grateful to our awesome fiscal sponsor — the Fund for the City of New York — but it makes sense for us now to spin out as our own independent 501(c)(3) public charity to ensure we continue to offer great value for money, and to grow our team on the front line of global change in LATAM, Africa, and Asia and unlock the energy of our incredible global community. 

So, what do you think? As ever, we would love to hear your feedback. Just ping me directly at ghayman@open-contracting.org. No plan ever survives contact with reality, so your advice on what’s working, and what we can do better, is always highly appreciated!