Open Government Contracting

A relatively new discipline pertaining to procurement and contracting bodes well for government and other organizations that spend public funds, such as non-government organizations. This emerging field is called Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS), developed in 2014 by the World Bank with support from the Omidyar Network.

OCDS, according to open-contracting.org, is an open data standard for online publication of structured information on all stages of a contracting process: from planning to implementation. (Note: the whole process covers procurement and contract administration, which includes the stage where contractors and/or providers are paid for goods and services they deliver.) The publication of OCDS data can enable greater transparency in public contracting, and can support accessible and in-depth analysis of the efficiency, effectiveness, fairness, and integrity of public contracting systems.

It prescribes disclosure at three levels—basic, intermediate, and advanced. Basic data relate to tender and awards notices. Intermediate data pertain to basic data plus unique identifiers along with classifications in JSON (short for the programming language called JavaScript Object Notation). Also included at the intermediate level are tender and award notices with structured downloadable excel file in CSV (comma separated value) format.

The unique identifier functions like an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for published books. It is assigned to a contractor. The advanced level provides more details, such as contract amendments and updates. Data also include contract details and status of physical and financial progress.

With OCDS, anyone with access to the internet can look for the unique identifier of Company X—and see how many contracts, both completed and ongoing, it has signed with the government. Theoretically (this does not exist yet in the Philippines), one may be interested in looking up Company X’s quotation or bid for a road concreting project in Tawi Tawi (Southern Philippines). What was the unit price for 1 kilometer of road at thickness of x inches and width of x meters? We can go on and compare this data to that of Company Y, which bagged a contract for a more or less similar road concreting project in Masinloc (Western Philippines).

The key to functionality of open data is their interlinkages using JSON and APIs (short for Application Programming Interface).

Publishing and using structured and standardized information about public contracting can help stakeholders to: (1) deliver better value for money for governments, (2) create fairer competition and a level playing field for business, especially smaller firms, (3) drive higher-quality goods, works, and services for citizens, (4) prevent fraud and corruption, and (5) promote smarter analysis and better solutions for public problems.

OCDS believes that public access to open contracting data builds trust and ensures that the trillions of dollars spent by governments results in better services, goods, and infrastructure projects. It is currently implemented on pilot basis in at least 9 countries, namely: Canada, United Kingdom, Mexico, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

The Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System, or PhilGEPS, also facilitates public access to procurement related data through its website. However, data is limited to tender and award notices, which can be downloaded as CSV file.

Because PhilGEPS is showing progress in making procurement-related data open for public use, its collaboration in the future with an emerging global initiative like OCDS should be expected. The dream is to expand even more the details that can be accessed from open-domain websites. I suppose every taxpayer would be happy to learn who are the incorporators of Company X, for example (which will require PhilGEPS to link with Securities and Exchange Commission data), and explore if any name is associated with the list of campaign contributors (requiring links to Commission on Elections data).

There are large holes in government procurement and contract administration through which untold amounts of public funds are being wasted. Recently, Deputy Ombudsman Cyril Ramos reported that the Philippines is losing around P700 billion, or around 20 percent of the country’s total budget appropriation, yearly, due to corruption.

Making government procurement corruption-free is like the treasure at the end of the rainbow. We have always longed to be where the treasure lies, but somehow we fail to get there. Yet government is not helpless. It manages to collect the funds it needs to support the delivery of goods and services to its constituents. Problems is a big chunk of its funds goes not to provide public goods but to fatten private wallets. Mr. Ramos further said that the amount of money lost to corruption is equivalent to some 1.4 million housing for the poor, medical assistance for around 7 million Filipinos, or a rice buffer stock that can last for more than a year.

The OCDS method promises plugging some holes that lead to procurement-related leaks. Hopefully there is enough resolve from policy makers to get this applied in government procurement and contracting procedures.       

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