Accountable Governments Are the Key to a Better Life

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Written by Coby Jones

People don’t have to be accountable to their government, but governments do have to be accountable to their people.

This was the atmosphere at the 2018 International Open Data Conference in Buenos Aires. Everyone was talking about open data, but in the world of open contracting, people are talking about the systematic change that open data can bring. Is open data, and for that matter, open contracting really living up to the hype? Let’s find out.

Governments around the world spend an estimated US$9.5 trillion of public funds through contracts every year. This money goes towards services that citizens can access that make their lives better. Public transportation, road maintenance, and supplies for public hospitals. Government contracting accounts for the public goods and services that give citizens a higher quality standard of living.

Yet, contracting information is often unavailable for public scrutiny, and we know that these services are not always high quality and can, in fact, be a danger to people’s lives. This can be fixed and governments can be held to a higher standard of accountability. How? Through open contracting.

This is what the non-profit Open Contracting Partnership is advocating for. “Radical transparency in public procurement is possible and will save government billions of dollars. It’s not just that everyone deserves to see this data, it’s that it drives much better competition and results”, says Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership.

But how does open contracting and public procurement create better school lunches, safer public transportation, or reduce corruption?

By giving governments, businesses, and citizens the tools they need to identify problems and create solutions that spark systematic change.

Bogotá did this with the school lunch program in 2017. A problem was identified: poor quality and unreliable lunch services to Bogotá public schools. And a solution was found when María Victoria Angulo, then the Secretary of Education in Bogotá and now Minister of Education, worked with the federal procurement agency Colombia Compra Eficiente. Angulo led an initiative that researched prices using open contracting data and established a public procurement framework that resulted in higher quality school lunches. This process broke up vested interests in a city known for corruption and intervened in monopoly suppliers. Not only does the process of school lunches procurement actually reduce corruption, the public sees it that way as well.

Ukraine is taking this kind of transparency to the national level. In 2014, the Maidan revolution spurred an overhaul of the public procurement and tendering system. In its post revolution state, a transparent platform for government spending called ProZorro is undercutting corruption and preventing abuses of power at the highest levels. ProZorro established an e-procurement system—an online system that allows business access to bids and auctions the government puts out for the services it needs. This system is all open source so anyone can have access to it. What originally started as a pilot project with a few volunteers has now become Ukraine’s formal e-procurement system. By the end of 2017, ProZorro was working in a market of around 26 billion EUR with over 27,000 procuring entities, around 127,000 bidders, and over a million procedures annually.

In this open and transparent post-revolutionary world, the former President of Ukraine no longer lives in a secret 140 hectare estate with a yacht pier, a shooting range, a boxing gym, an ostrich farm, a petting zoo, a man-made lake, a greenhouse complex, a helicopter pad, several fountains, five guest houses, and a mansion covered in gold.

At the International Open Data Conference, people were talking about the potential of open contracting. Open contracting is a new concept in the field of open data and governance policy but one with some concrete success stories that have shown the beginning of the change to come. Public procurement is one of the key fields of government spending and policy. Our tax dollars go towards funding these public services. Open contracting will have a huge impact on how our dollars are being used.

Open processes guarantee more accountability from governments and businesses, so citizens can gain more value in their day to day lives. The school children of Bogotá are already reaping the benefits of open contracting. Who will be next?