When Everyone Sees Everything
By Seember Nyager
Usain Bolt needs no introduction. His reputation as the fastest man in the world is grounded and largely undisputed because we are all witnesses of the races he competes in. Competing for government contracts is a bit more complex. The current rules for awarding government contracts generally suggest that maintaining competitive advantage requires some part of the process for selecting providers of public infrastructure and services to be carried out behind closed doors. This is in order to protect the competitive advantage of each prospective contractor. It would seem, however, that we are haunted and shortchanged by this rule of competition and public services do not seem any better as a result. The alternative is to adopt the system used for races, one that is open to scrutiny where everyone sees everything.
In Nigeria, our minds are often boggled by the media frenzy over one public contract such as the nine billion naira clean cooking stoves that went wrong. These lone cases may come as the result of a questionable press release or a whistleblower astounded by the magnitude of the alleged misappropriation.
While several of these headline contracts remain unsolved, there are hundreds of smaller contracts such as Primary Health Care centres (PHCs) to which no attention is given. PHCs are designed to offer first line health service to communities such as routine medication, vaccinations and reproductive health care. Despite the importance of the services they render, it is difficult to trace the location of these PHCs and benchmark their performance against the specifications that were provided for their establishment. A huge part of the problem arises because the data on these health care services is not publicly available nor is the data used to generate any analyses that links appropriations to the eventual public service.
Rather than the prevailing system, one can only imagine a system that is more akin to an open race. The rules of this type of competition are pretty clear: that everyone sees and understands the rules of the game; and there is an opportunity for the public to witness the selection process. On that basis, the eventual contract award is generally acceptable to all who followed the process. In the sphere of public service delivery, such a system would insist that information across every stage of the public contracting process is publicly available. From the project’s conception to budget appropriation, contract award and execution, various stakeholders would have access to the data and, through an automated system, be able to link budgets and procurement data to public services.
In the context of PHCs, for example, it would mean that there is publicly accessible data on what type of centre is to be built at each location, the exact service to be offered by the centre, the infrastructure that would enable the delivery of the specified service, the cost that each contractor offers to build that project, to whom the contract was eventually awarded and how well the completed centre meets the pre-defined specifications.
If there was a system that insisted on these parameters being made public and the data on each stage is comparable by anyone interested, it is most likely that we would be one step closer to preventing inefficiencies or corruption in the public service delivery process.
For one, contractors – knowing that a record of their previous projects is publicly available and can be easily scrutinised through an automated system – are likely to bid only on the basis of competence and anyone who decides to give a bribe does it at their own risk. Any claimed competence would then become open to public scrutiny, inflated contracts would be more easily discovered and unrealistic budget estimates would be better discouraged. When a contract is amended or cancelled, the public records are updated thus providing a platform that enables improved performance of executed contracts each year. This would mean that public institutions can more easily discover any red flags in the system and follow the leads in a more efficient way. The thought that red flags can be automatically revealed by anyone interacting with contracting data creates an incentive for every stakeholder involved in the process to do their best.
In the last few weeks, procurement monitors have been advocating for such a system across the public service and some of the feedback suggests that it is ambitious – ambitious but not impossible.
The level of ambition is why countries like Ukraine are an inspiration to every country seeking to ensure that the best value is gotten in the provision of public services. With similar challenges to Nigeria’s public procurement system, the Ukrainian government is bold to publicly say that the previous system depicted corruption and must therefore be overhauled. As a result, Ukraine has introduced a radical system called Prozorro which literally means “everyone sees everything”. One of the features of this system is that the entire process through which contracts are awarded is open to scrutiny.
To a question on protecting the confidentiality of contractors put across to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Economic Planning at the recently concluded OGP summit in Mexico, his response was that everyone bidding for government contracts does so at their own risk and, given Ukraine’s history, no part of the contracting process would be hidden. Ukraine is not alone in this. Slovakia has also introduced a new law that requires all public contracts to be published before they are valid.
Systemic inefficiencies require radical change. Now that Nigeria has developed institutions and procedures for professionalising public procurement, the next step to achieve greater competence and efficiency in the public service delivery process requires a system where everyone sees everything, a system inspired by open contracting.