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Light in the Tunnel: Scaling Up Open Contracting to improve public contracting outcomes in Africa

Governments worldwide spend over $9.5 trillion annually in public contracting. However, in Africa, an increase of the budget allocated to economic and social development do not match the quality and quantity of the public service delivery.

One of the attributes to the poor services delivery has been a lack of public participation in government projects resulting in the poor alignment of citizens’ needs and ability to monitor government spending.  Open contracting offers great perspectives in supporting governments to curb corruption and engage citizens in public contracting.

The Africa Freedom of Information Centre membership, through its Open Contracting Working Group is coordinating its members’ efforts across the continent to advance the open contracting agenda at national and continental level. The working group members have respectively elaborated national strategies that tackle the challenges identified in achieving open contracting targets.

It is estimated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that every year, 20-30% of the public contracts value is lost through corruption alone. which ultimately results in poor services delivery and lack of value for money. This is attributed to the lack of public participation in government projects including contracts. It is believed that when citizens are involved in governance programmes, the governments become more accountable and responsive. However, accountability cannot be enforced without transparency and the rule of law which involves the reciprocal and full exchange of information especially in contracts management.

AFIC Open Contracting Working Group partners pose for a group photo at the end of two-day meeting that was held in Nairobi, Kenya on May 17, 2018

Since the launch of the Open Contracting Data Standard in 2014, the open contracting approach has gained traction in Africa and around the world. Open contracting is an approach to improving public procurement through three core elements:

  • Disclosure of open data, documents and information about the planning, procurement, and implementation of public contracts,
  • Participation and use of contracting data by non-state actors, and
  • Accountability and redress by governments agencies or contractors acting on the feedback that they receive from civil society and corporate entities.

AFIC is a pan-African NGO and resource centre that promotes the right of access to information through comparative research, coordinating regional advocacy, facilitating information-sharing and capacity building. It is comprised of 40 members in 21 African countries.

The close relationship between open contracting and access to information, has been reflected in the strategy and work of AFIC membership. Access to Information legal frameworks is recognised to advance disclosure of procurement data which is one component of the open contracting approach. Open contracting movements and initiatives have triggered more reflection around access to information and pushed for adoption and implementation of the access to information legal framework.

AFIC Open Contracting Working Group was established in 2016 with the goal of providing leadership, coordination, conceptual and technical skills to review the current architecture of the open contracting agenda across Africa.

This initiative was comforted with the identification of good practices and advance in open contracting agenda in Nigeria and Uganda. Indeed, both Ugandan and Nigeria public procurement portals namely the Government Procurement Portal (GPP) and NOCOPO respectively were aligned to the Open Contracting Data Standard. Good practices identified included to approach the government with tangible recommendations emanating from OCDS mapping of existing public procurement portals or concrete products that will add value to their work; demonstrate the benefits of open contracting initiatives on the overall performance of the public procurement regulator to execute its mandate; rely on government’s commitments to advance your agenda, especially in the case of Open Government Partnership country members; and strengthen civil society engagement in monitoring public contracts

In collaboration and with support from Open Contracting Partnership (OCP), AFIC convened the first physical meeting of the Working Group members from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda in Nairobi Kenya from May 16-17, 2018 with the aim of:

  1. Training Working Group members on Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) and open contracting (OC) principles in general
  2. Updating and refining respective national action plans to advance open contracting
  3. Developing strategy for OC in current OGP and non-OGP African countries.

The meeting was attended by 12 participants from AFIC membership and 8 participants from AFIC partners (Open Contracting Partnership, Global Integrity, Hivos and Development Gateway). The expected outcomes were:

  1. Improved understanding of OCDS and open contracting
  2. Implementation strategy for OC in Africa
  3. Coordination and learning of the working group members

During the two-day workshop, knowledge of the members of the working group was identified as already high. This is because all organisation members of AFIC have strong expertise on access to information legal frameworks and their implementation as well as engagement of citizens for their participation in the public sphere. They were introduced to technical knowledge on OCDS and open contracting data use cases.

Using Global Integrity and Open Contracting Partnership experiences, members of the working group were able to identify the main challenges they were facing in advancing open contracting in their respective countries and realistic solutions to address them, elaborate concrete action plans to achieve their goals as well as highlight needs for technical support from the AFIC secretariat, whenever, necessary.

In Nigeria and Uganda, both public procurement portals are aligned to the Open Contracting Data Standard. Respective strategies focus on capacity building of public servants to comply with the systems in place and avail data as per the standard. Furthermore, in both countries, the highlighted activities are the identification of the different stakeholders’ data needs, development of tools to translate data into usable information and documentation of the process to provide feedback in view of improving the system for disclosure of data and public participation.

In South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Cameroon, the respective strategies focus on increasing political will in adopting the open contracting principles and data standard. The highlighted activities are on the mapping of existing public procurement portals’ compliance with the Open Contracting Data Standard, awareness raising of the different stakeholders involved and engagement of the public procurement regulator and policy makers to adopt open contracting principles. Ghana and Kenya have great opening opportunity in the coming implementation of e-government portals that are intended to be Open Contracting Data Standard compliant as per their respective terms of reference.

Overall, a strategy for the Working Group itself was elaborated. The Working Group members identified four areas of needs for support across countries. There is a need to build the capacity of members on the technical area of open contracting, but also to engage the different stakeholders involved on the same. The members will further need support for communications (internal and external) and fundraising.

Across African countries, the AFIC Secretariat will be coordinating and supporting the conduct of OCDS mappings with a view of identifying gaps between the disclosure systems and practices with the standard; national campaigns to raise awareness on the benefit of the open contracting approach; national capacity building events for public servants, private sector actors, civil society and media; use of data; as well as documentation of impact of open contracting on public service delivery.

AFIC will also catalyse the working group effort on advocacy at continental and international level, promoting the work of its members in advancing open contracting, disseminating knowledge products and advocating for open contracting agenda in different spaces such as OGP, the AU and the UN.

A recent grant by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has helped to kick start implementation of action plans in Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa. The two-year project aims to implement the continental Working Group (WG) action plans to consolidate the open contracting agenda across Africa. It provides leadership, coordination, conceptual and technical skills to AFIC members for the implementation of respective country action plans to enhance citizen’s access to information, participation and value for money in public contracting.

The great strength of AFIC’s Working Group on open contracting lies in its peer sharing and learning dynamics. Indeed, AFIC engagements with the Uganda government on open contracting and the resulting advances on open contracting in this country benefited along the way from the Nigerian counterpart experience. Many peer exchanges between respective civil society organisations and governments have consolidated awareness-raising and capacity building engagements at national level. This has overtime created an emulating environment that can spread rapidly across Africa.

Already, the governments of Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda have committed to build an e-government procurement portal aligned to the Open Contracting Data Standard. This presents tremendous opportunities for the open contracting advocates to engage the different stakeholders involved in public contracting. To some extent, the alignment is the easy part because it only provides the structures to disclose information.

The challenges lie in public institutions to use the procurement systems appropriately and disclose information. This requires a lot of awareness-raising components to change mind-sets of public servants that in many occurrences across Africa are still working within a culture of secrecy. It is also crucial to focus on the different stakeholders’ needs of data to participate meaningfully in the process. This requires a thorough identification of those needs and engagement of governments to integrate them in the disclosure of public procurement information landscape.

Mindful of these challenges, the AFIC Secretariat seeks to implement the Open Contracting Working Group strategy as well as support the implementation of the members’ action plans to address the challenges identified and participate in a conducive environment for the use of data.

To do so, the working group relies on the wealth of resourceful skills, experiences, knowledge, tools and solidarity of its members. Most importantly, the essence of the working group is for its members, at different stages of progress towards implementation of open contracting in their respective countries, to share experience, good practices, challenges, advocacy tools and approaches.

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