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UN Convention against Corruption: How open contracting can be a game changer for fighting corruption

This week, our Head of Advocacy Kristen Robinson was invited to address the Intersessional meeting of the Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) on the achievements of the political declaration adopted by the special session of the General Assembly against corruption. She addressed the delegates of participating governments on the topic of preventative measures and how open contracting can be a game changer for the public procurement — government’s number one corruption risk. OCP hopes these inputs will elevate the public procurement reform as a leading priority in the fight against corruption, and encourage peer learning and a race to the top among governments committed to implementing the UNCAC for impact.

I’m incredibly passionate about procurement because I know that when we prioritize better public procurement, we’re not just fighting corruption, we’re maximizing the precious resources we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. I’m hoping to recruit as many governments as possible to the cause of transforming procurement from a slow, outdated process to a modern, dynamic engine of progress.

Procurement is powerful for three reasons: 

  1. It’s a lot of money — more than US $13 trillion annually. That’s 1 in every 3 dollars of all government spending, government’s number one corruption risk
  1. It is everywhere and touches everyone’s daily life — if you tell me your favorite Sustainable Development Goal, I’ll tell you why you won’t achieve it without open, effective procurement
  1. It involves a lot of discretion. And the way we manage that discretion is the deciding factor in whether this enormous sum of public money enriches society through better public goods, infrastructure and services, or enriches a few corrupt actors through luxury goods, kickbacks and offshore bank accounts.

When we lose public money through corruption in public procurement, it costs us so much more than the stolen funds themselves. It costs us even more money to investigate and prosecute the crimes it enables from bribery to money laundering, it costs us time in tracking stolen assets, and it costs us the one asset that is even harder to recover than money — public trust.

But the good news is things are changing. We have stories emerging around the world that show us what works, what doesn’t. And we have better technology, red flags methodologies, and change management approaches to minimize these risks than ever before. 

Where are we now, one year after the UN General Assembly Special Session on Corruption

If we just digitize outdated, slow paper-based processes, you simply end up with the digital version of that inefficient, ineffective process. You face problems like a pile of unstructured, low quality data with gaps, or maybe even just a wealth of information locked in PDFs that can’t be analyzed effectively. That’s why it’s so important that the UNGASS political declaration recognized the need for good quality, open, structured data. For the first time, this declaration included the importance of data along the whole cycle of procurement from planning through to contract delivery and implementation, and this is critical because collusion begins before tenders are published, and further corruption risks exist even after contracts are awarded. Finally, it highlighted the role non-governmental stakeholders can play in strengthening and monitoring procurement to reduce corruption risks.

So what is still holding us back from strong, effective implementation? Over the past year our team has asked dozens of procurement officers that exact question and we’ve published policy and technical resources covering challenges ranging from gender and inclusion to confidentiality to data standards and more.

But there’s one overarching trend I want to bring to your attention: In today’s world, procurement officers are under incredible pressure to do more with less. We expect them to buy things as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible, to a high quality standard. And we want that spending to be green, low carbon footprint, invest in small businesses, increase the access of suppliers owned by women and minority groups, create local jobs, prevent slavery in the supply chain, protect national security, and so much more. 

But most of the time, they don’t have all the resources, training, data or technology they need to manage all of these new expectations and the new forms of discretion and risk they introduce alongside the many opportunities they create.

The UN Convention Against Corruption and UNGASS political declaration can act as an important baseline of good practice to help procurement teams navigate these challenges and adapt to the future. States parties to the UNCAC can do their part in four ways:

This forum is such an important baseline of good practice and peer learning, as we all face economic uncertainty and the financial and health pressures of pandemic recovery, we need to make the most of it and encourage a race to the top of procurement performance that goes beyond transparency for its own sake, and delivers impact on the SDGs that citizens will really feel and appreciate. I look forward to supporting the states parties in making progress on this important agenda.