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Who Wins in a Low Transparency, High Corruption Environment? The impact of a low transparency environment in the procurement of Digital Technology Systems in Africa.

Some government operations rely heavily on digital technology, which includes software, hardware, and services. Technology is used to generate revenue, deliver services, and engage citizens. Digital technology facilitates the delivery of public services, creates efficiencies, encourages citizen participation, and improves communications for local governments.

“Digital Technology Systems are increasingly being embraced by governments in Africa as elsewhere given their potential and ability to impact on efficient delivery of public services.”

Sunlight in Digital Technologies, AFIC 2021 

The effectiveness of digital technology is determined by the technology chosen, its suitability for the intended purpose, and the effective use of the technology by government employees and citizens.

As more of our public services are managed using digital technologies, it is critical that public procurement of Digital Technology Systems is done fairly and openly, and that citizens have access to the information they need to evaluate government policies and usage decisions.

 “Citizens in Africa inadequately understand why governments are investing in technologies that collect basic data on them, and why governments insufficiently sensitize them on the urgency/indispensability of these DTS.” Sunlight in Digital Technologies, AFIC 2021

The disparities in information access in the policy-making process are staggering. Any public body that intends to award contracts for the supply of goods or services must advertise its intention to do so in newspapers, trade publications, or on the relevant website. For example, if a contract is worth more than $250,000, the government must also advertise in state-based newspapers. However, these notices are frequently published in difficult-to-find locations, are not always online, and thus are not accessible to the general public. According to the AFIC Study, less than 1% of the value of contracts for DTSs is disclosed, increasing the risk of corruption and inefficiency in DTS tendering and procurement across the three countries. It is difficult for data users in the public, private, and voluntary sectors to meaningfully contribute to the improvement of DTS procurement performance and governance in the absence of disclosure.

Government procurement information is one of the most systematic and process-driven activities. The public’s lack of understanding of government procurement of digital technologies, on the other hand, is largely due to a lack of capacity building, awareness creation campaigns, or transparency in this area. The general public is unaware of the technicalities of procurement processes, as well as the role they can play in making this process transparent, citizen-friendly, and participatory. Public awareness of the procurement and safeguards in the context of DTS was found to be low particularly in Liberia and Uganda. This is where the role of civil society in creating awareness comes in handy.

“With low awareness, there is limited public scrutiny of the procurement and deployment of DTS in spite of high risk of corruption associated with them.”

It is easier to conceal decision-making manipulation when there is a lack of transparency in government decision-making. Citizens, who have the most to gain or lose, must be involved in decision-making and monitoring processes, not only to serve as independent monitors but also to close information gaps that can lead to trust issues. This begins with them becoming interested in public procurement information.

All procurement information that has been disclosed should be made available online in open-data format. This means that the information must be comparable, freely available and shared, and usable.

AFIC Study recommends that:

  1. Respective governments of Liberia, Nigeria, and Uganda publish DTS procurement data, in open formats on procurement portals to promote transparency and accountability in the procurement of DTSs. There should also be timely feedback whenever citizens file requests for information on procurement and deployment of DTS to different government MDAs.
  2. 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. Early-stage transparency and participation by stakeholders in the procurement of DTS should be emphasized to mitigate against problems associated with addressing procurement problems when it is too late.

With support from Omidyar Network, Africa Freedom of Information Centre, conducted a study, Sunlight in Digital Technologies, to investigate the procurement and deployment of Digital Technology Systems in Liberia, Uganda and Nigeria.