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Is the procurement of digital technology systems transparent? A case of Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria.

This article is part of a pilot study which investigated the procurement and deployment of Digital Technology Systems in Liberia, Uganda and Nigeria, conducted by Africa Freedom of Information Centre in partnership with CEMESP and PPDC with support from Omidyar Network.

Digital technology systems are increasingly being used by most Governments in Africa, as well as being increasingly being used for democratic purposes. These technologies are, however, not readily available to citizens in terms of access to them. Given the potential for these technologies to be a tool to improve good governance and citizen participation, it is important that these systems are procured equitably. This research sought to understand current procurement practices and laws that govern procurement of digital technology systems in Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria.

This study also sought to highlight the perceptions of public officials and citizens who have interacted with Government on the procurement of digital technology systems, what they feel were strengths and weaknesses both in terms of process and outcomes. Part of the study succinctly sought to understand what digital technologies are being bought by governments, the safeguards to privacy, security, inclusion and individual control in the procurement and use of digital technologies.

To achieve this study, AFIC made use of desk review, expert interviews and focus group discussions. The study found that there is a dearth of information on current procurement processes, as well as the impact these systems have on citizens’ access to information and well-being.

The study involved a comparative analysis of the procurement of digital technologies in three countries: Nigeria, Liberia and Uganda. The analysis was done by characterizing the way different governments in Africa procure digital technology systems.

An analysis of the procurement of digital technology systems revealed that there is no uniformity in the systems and processes across these countries. Further, the review identified that the procurement processes for digital technologies are not well known to the public. The study also found that while there existed a general appreciation for the public procurement of digital technology systems, there was little or no knowledge on the economic, social and environmental costs associated with these technologies.

Using a sample of 2000 respondents in Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria, AFIC found out that citizens of these countries are not aware of their governments’ digital technology systems procurement and are not aware of the opportunities the digital technology can afford them in making their governments more accountable. Overall, only 38% of survey participants were knowledgeable about government purchase of at least one of the three technologies.

While 25 African countries have adopted Access to Information laws, this right is still just a piece of paper. The digital technology revolution has been accompanied by a transformation in public administration where more government ministries and agencies are embracing the use of digital technology systems. A potential for greater citizen awareness and oversight of government business accompanies this transformation. However, this potentially transformative moment is not being fully exploited. It is currently being dominated by one-way communication. The voice of citizens has often been ignored.

In Liberia, study participants showed that they scarcely know about government purchase of facial recognition and artificial intelligence technologies. Also, public awareness of the procurement and safeguards in DTS is low particularly in Liberia and Uganda. Digital technologies such as computers, cameras, and software applications are essential to core functions of government. Governments increasingly use digital technologies in the administration of public services, including in the areas of health, social welfare, education, and security. Governments are also procuring digital technologies to deliver value for money – for example to issue and collect taxes, process documents and manage databases. These procurements can be complex and costly. The value of the global public procurement market for information and communication technologies reached US$1.5 trillion in 2012 alone.

The procurement of digital technology systems has become a common practice in African Governments for different purposes, the most common being telecommunication systems, computer hardware, and software while others have been used for illegal surveillance of [opposition] politicians, journalists and other civil society leaders for their legitimate civic mandates. Governments use an array digital surveillance technology with the help of private companies is spying on its citizens for political reasons.

Globally, and more recently in Africa, Governments are increasingly procuring digital technology systems (DTS) that manage their data, records, and systems of records related to governance. However, some methods of procurement used to purchase these systems are so uncompetitive they could increase the risk of collusion and corruption. With low awareness, there is limited public scrutiny of the procurement and deployment of DTS despite high risk of corruption associated with them.

The study further revealed that it is also not clear whether, and/or to what extent DTS are supported by prevailing legal and policy frameworks without specific laws governing DTS procurement and deployment of DTS. In Uganda, we filed 20 official information requests with the Uganda Electoral Commission, Parliament of Uganda, Ministry of Internal Affairs; and Uganda Police Force to examine among others their procurements under the Uganda’s Access to Information Act, which grants a right for citizens to access public information. According to the Act, once a request for information is received by any agency/MDA it should be responded to within 20 days. Only the Ministry of Internal Affairs gave positive feedback (in terms of actual provision of the information requested), and in such a short time of 4 days; the rest of the MDAs have not responded at all.

Considering improving transparency of procurement of digital technology systems in Africa, we recommend that:

  1. There is a need to review legislation on procurement to make it more transparent especially on openness and accessibility in public procurement. The current laws are silent on open bidding.
  2. In line with fair business practices, respective governments in Liberia, Uganda and Nigeria should promote open bidding in procurement of DTS in order to promote value for money in tendering of DTS and innovation
  3. Civil society organizations in respective countries should prioritize creation of public awareness of the importance of DTSs as well as associated risks and mitigation measures. We emphasize early stage transparency and participation by stakeholders in the procurement of DTS to mitigate against problems associated with addressing procurement problems when it is too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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