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A reflection on the programmatic approach and the role of infomediaries to improve efficiency, transparency and accountability in public contracting and other public money flows.

By Daniel Dietrich

The Open Contracting programme of Hivos and ARTICLE 19 is a five-year programme (2016-2020) within the Strategic Partnership of Dialogue and Dissent with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The programme aims to make public contracting more efficient, transparent and accountable by saving money and time, improving public service delivery, boosting integrity, and creating a fairer business environment.

In the first half of 2016 extensive scoping studies1 (full reports, country two pagers and a synthesis report) were conducted in 15 low-middle income countries, after which seven were selected for the programme implementation: Indonesia, Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Guatemala and Bolivia. Based on the scoping studies, further stakeholder consultations and country-level implementation plans have been developed, and the Theory of Change has been adopted to country-level. Per country, we have furthermore identified sectoral focuses, stakeholders, potential partners and the approach to advocacy and communications.

The long-term goal of the programme is threefold: 1) Governments increase the transparency of their public spending; 2) non-state actors participate and engage citizens in the planning, procurement, and monitoring of public contracting; and 3) accountability mechanisms are created for receiving and acting upon citizen feedback.

Learn more about our partners and their projects.

Why is this important?

Governments worldwide spend an estimated US$ 9.5 trillionon public contracting. Contracting is an essential step in the delivery of goods and services that people care about: good public education, quality health care, safe roads and clean drinking water.

Public workers, during the construction of an overpass in the Pan American highway, in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo: Maria Fleischmann / World Bank

However, public contracting processes are complex and vulnerable to bad planning, mismanagement, fraud and corruption. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, corruption and fraud may amount to 20-25% of procurement budgets. This is wasted taxpayers’ money.

Open contracting is about making data and documents about the entire contracting process available following the Open Contracting Data Standard: from the planning phase to tendering and from averaging and contracting to implementation.

Making public contracting more transparent, fair and efficient has multiple benefits for everyone. Governments can save taxpayers money, by creating better value for money and delivering better public goods and services. Making public contracting more efficient and reducing corruption can also help to rebuild trust in public institutions and their representatives. Civil society organisations can engage citizens, communities and interest groups in the planning phase of the contracting cycle, monitor the delivery and implementation of projects, and increase public oversight by analysing and investigating cases of fraud and corruption. Oversight authorities can establish channels for feedback, and listen and act on information received. This can point them to cases for investigation that might not have been spotted otherwise. Citizens and community groups can engage in consultations in the planning phase of public procurement and spending processes to make their needs and concerns heard. Citizens and community groups can monitor and document the implementation of the delivery of public goods and services and provide feedback to oversight authorities or other feedback channels established by government OR civil society organisations. Citizens can make informed decisions (for example when voting, or planning where to live) based on the information published by governments and received via infomediaries and the media.  The private sector can more effectively engage in public contracting if the process allows for a level playing field and fair competition. This can boost innovation as new and smaller companies have more opportunities to compete and win a tender against bigger, more established companies. Finally, an efficient and fair public contracting process can improve the business and investment climate, thereby strengthening the economy.

It’s important to note that Open Contracting is not a technical exercise that begins and ends with implementing a data standard. Making public contracting more transparent, accountable and efficient is rather a long-term reform process that requires change in multiple dimensions and the collaboration of multiple stakeholders in society. These stakeholders include citizens on the one side and governments on the other. In between citizens and governments,  there are several stakeholders, each with a different role in the process: the parliament and other independent oversight authorities; advocacy CSOs; academia; media; business associations; the private sector; social startups and entrepreneurs; civic tech organisations, and community-based groups. All stakeholders have their specific goals and interests, focuses, assets, and capacities that need to be taken into account.

Source: Pixabay

To be successful and sustainable Open Contracting initiatives need a conducive legal framework including: robust Access to Information and Freedom of Expression legislations; whistleblower protection; independent and well-resourced oversight authorities; and last but not least, a robust ‘civic space’. Unfortunately the civic space is under pressure in many countries around the world,making it difficult for civil society, human right defenders and independent media to effectively do their work. The shrinking civic space is also the reason why the programme establishes risk assessments, emergency planning and safety and security trainings and advice for its partners (see below).  

Moreover such a reform process requires all stakeholders to work together. What has been found for Open Data initiatives also applies to Open Contracting--three key groups or ‘layers’ were crucial to the successful introduction of open data, as a report from 2010found: 1) An influential and active civil society provided the ‘bottom up’ pressure for change through traditional advocacy and demonstrated how open information could be used by setting up innovative websites; 2) Civil servants and government administrators who saw open data as a way of improving efficiency provided the ‘middle layer’; 3) Finally, ‘high-level‘ political leaders including Heads of States and Ministers provided the third layer with political buy-in and support that is needed to execute such reforms.

Engagement for Open Contracting

Reformers in Governments around the world have started implementing open contracting. At the same time civil society organisations (CSO) have started analysing and investigating the data to unveil cases of misuse and corruption, and providing feedback to oversight authorities in order to hold governments and businesses to account. While there is a considerable push at the international and inter-state levels to support governments involved in open contracting initiatives, local civil society organisations (CSOs) are often unrecognised and unsupported in their work.

Specifically, an infomediary takes complex data and packages it or contextualises it so that it can be understood and used by wider segments of society and transformed into action. Multiple infomediaries, with different types of capacities, linked together in a chain in an ecosystem,are more likely to use the data effectively.

 

As recent research indicates, the most effective projects do not limit themselves to opening up data; they also work to increase government’s capacity to respond to accountability claims.For this reason, another element of Hivos’ programme will focus on actively brokering accountability coalitions that include champions within governments.

Hivos and ARTICLE 19’s programme

The programme supports CSOs, journalists, entrepreneurs, startups and other frontline organisations in the aforementioned seven selected focus countries to more robustly and actively engage in the open contracting agenda. This entails developing the capacities they need to access, analyse and translate complex contracting data and documents into actionable information for evidence-based advocacy with their respective governments.

Capacity Development and Lobby & Advocacy (L&A) are seen as interlinked activities. Partner organisations will be supported in developing their capacities during the process of designing and implementing ‘high impact projects’ for social change. The projects build the evidence-based backbone of L&A at the national level. The evidence showcased in the pilot projects will be used to inform lobby and advocacy at the national, regional and international levels.

Added value

Open Contacting is a relatively new approach and as of today there are only a limited number of use cases. This is where the Open Contacting programme of Hivos and ARTICLE 19 really can add value to the international agenda setting: by supporting local partners in creating tangible use cases that showcase the social and economic benefits of Open Contracting in the context of a country. The lessons learned from applying different strategies and approaches will be captured and shared widely to support others in the field.

The Approach: Focus on change, not on tech and data

Traditional approaches to capacity development are prone to common pitfalls, including: an attitude/perception of “they have capacity gaps; we bring in the experts”. This results in one-off trainings that remain abstract with little connectivity and relevance for the actual work of the partner organisation. The design of capacity development programmes must be user-centered and based on the needs of the partner organisation to accomplish defined organisational goals. To be effective and sustainable, capacity development should focus on supporting the entire partner organisation to develop high-impact projects and realising their organisational goals, thereby leading to organisational transformation and sustainability.

For capacity assessment, the programme uses an approach that involves the partner in assessing their organisational capabilities in five dimensions with the 5C methodology6. For monitoring and evaluation, the programme uses the Outcome Harvesting methodology7, capturing successes and failures in the form of narrative stories, rather than the traditional logframe based on abstract indicators. With this approach, we hope to reduce partners’ reporting requirements so they have more time for actual implementation.

Source: Pixabay

In the civic tech and open data communities there is a predominant focus on delivering a ‘product’, like publishing a key dataset in a shiny portal or developing a great app to solve a problem. While some key datasets are essential infrastructure for investigations, they often end up just being this, a potentially interesting, but unused resource. All too often, tech and data projects are siloed and not integrated with advocacy and have little connection to the organisational strategy development.

With a focus on long-term goals to solve societal problems, data and technology are perceived as two elements in the toolbox to achieve these goals. Equally important elements include the development of a clear organisational strategy, high-quality lobby and advocacy skills, professional communication and campaigning, and last but not least a vital business model for the organisation.

Choosing a new partnership model

Hivos has been, for most of its history, mostly a regranting organisation, distributing funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to local partners in low-income countries in the global south8. However,  this is changing and Hivos is increasingly becoming a co-implementing organisation. Hence, the programme envisions a long-term partnership with selected frontline organisations and other stakeholders working together in accountability coalitions on a joint agenda for social change. The model for this partnership is based on lessons learned and best practices from the field where technology and data are used for transparency and accountability, namely from the Matchbox programme of the Engine Room, the Fellowship programme of the School of Data and other practices from f civic tech communities including the Follow the Money Network,  Code for All and Poplus.

The idea of the partnership is to support partners with a diverse set of resources to enable them to develop the capacities needed to become effective infomediaries in open contracting. The partnership process is co-designed by the partners, Hivos and ARTICLE 19.The specific goals of this partnership are to:

  • Transform the capacities on advocacy, data and technology of key frontline infomediaries;
  • Accompany, and provide advice on strategy, data, technology, and advocacy to a set of high-impact projects hosted by partner infomediaries that showcase the social and economic benefits of open contracting;
  • Learn from others, reuse and extend existing databases, adapt and redeploy existing civic tech software to other contexts; and share, provide feedback and contribute to the field;
  • Build durable and effective regional networks and coalitions of infomediary organisations with a focus on open contracting and increase coordination around the development of better data infrastructures and advocacy strategies.

Overview of the elements of the support package

The actual contents, size and scope of each comprehensive support package will be tailor-made to the needs of the partner, based on the capacity assessment that is done collaboratively by Hivos and the partner at the beginning of the partnership and at the end of each year. The support can include:

  1. Support on project design
  2. Refinement of project proposals
  3. Advice on the organisational approach to strategy, technology, data and lobby and advocacy
  4. Capacity development via trainings and workshops based on identified capacity gaps
  5. Mentorship during the entire process of design, implementation, evaluation and documentation of project
  6. Expert advice and external support on tech and data
  7. Networking & matchmaking, including facilitating dialogue with governments and other stakeholders
  8. Brokering of national and regional accountability coalitions
  9. Coordination of action research on research questions developed by partner organisations
  10. Small-scale financial support in form of seed funding plus advice on fundraising

The programme follows an iterative approach where partner organisations can apply to move from one phase of the programme to the next if their projects are ambitious and have a long-term vision. In January 2017 the programme started a call for proposals for the seven focus countries and received more than hundred applications.  A selection committee reviewed the applications against a rigorous evaluation process. After a series of interviews and background checks, three partner organisations in each country were selected and invited to the kick-off workshops (we called them Spring Sprints) of the Partnership Civic Engagement for Open Contracting.

Overview on the sequencing of the iterative approach

The sprints were organised at the regional hubs of Hivos in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. We invited two representatives from each selected partner organisation, plus programme staff from Hivos and Article 19. In addition we invited mentors from the School of Data, and experts from The Engine Room and the Open Contracting Partnership to help facilitate and contribute to the sprints.

At the sprints we worked intensively together over five days helping our local partners to critically review and improve their project proposals. This was done by taking an agile approach to work with Theory of Change for each partner project, breaking them down and questioning assumptions. With support from the Engine Room, we went through a very interactive journey starting from  a well-defined problem statement,  long-term vision and overall goals, expected key outcomes and means to achieving the long-term vision, to identify the outputs, activities, timeline and resources needed in detail.

Next to the Theory of Change exercise, there was also emphasis on aligning  the project with the strategy and long-term vision of the organisation. The capacity assessments identifying key capacity gaps were also completed.  Last but not least, the sprint also included a review of the partnership model and a co-design of  activities for the next year and beyond.

The next step includes mentorship and trainings. The pool of mentors and trainers will be organised and coordinated by the School of Data and will include experts from the regions of the programmes focus countries The mentorships and trainings will focus on addressing the needs found in the capacity assessments. The pool of mentors and trainers possess a rich variety of skills and domain knowledge to cover all the capacity development needs of the partners.

Together with partner organisations from the field, we will collaboratively develop a modular curriculum ,build and test it agilely with partners throughout the course of the programme, and focus on capturing information relevant for the broader open contracting community. The curriculum will be made accessible online and will address the diverse strategic, analytical and tactical capabilities necessary for successful open contracting work. It will include resources in the following areas:

  1. Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS)
  2. Lobby &  advocacy (evidence based)
  3. Coalition building and campaigning
  4. Access to Information via FOI requests
  5. Investigative journalism methods
  6. Organisational strategy
  7. Strategic approach to tech and data
  8. Scraping and cleaning data
  9. Structuring and modeling data
  10. Analysing, matching and contextualising data
  11. Analysis of power networks and politically exposed persons database development
  12. Data-driven storytelling and data visualisation
  13. Risk assessment and mitigation for human rights defenders
  14. Digital and nondigital safety and security training
  15. Responsible data best practice

Source: Hivos

The programme envisions the development of an “Anti-Corruption Curriculum" for civil society organisations, investigative journalists, and others who wish to develop / deepen their capacities to use data and technology to investigate public money flows, public contracts, companies, beneficial ownership, and networks of power and influence in different areas and sectors at the local, regional and international levels.

The curriculum will be grounded in networks of best practices, such as the Follow the Money Network and investigative journalists’ initiatives, and will ensure it builds on lessons learned so that it is useful for practitioners on the ground, particularly for frontline organisations in developing countries. It will be complementary to other initiatives such as the Follow the Money network, the School of Data, and the Open Up Guide: Using Open Data to Combat Corruption of the Open Data Charter.

Recognising that this is a wide field and with the intention of building synergies and not reinventing the wheel, the curriculum development will start with an assessment of existing initiatives and resources and a user-needs assessment. They will inform the design of a framework and identify the modules and potential owners of modules.  The product is a modular toolbox that is owned and curated by a community of practice. The tentative target audience are trainers and advanced practitioners.

Safety and security for Human Right Defenders

Hivos is currently working on improving its overall safety & security policies at all Hivos offices worldwide. In this process we are working with consultants from the Digital Defenders Partnership, who have started their own initiative: Initiative for Sustainable Action.

In a nutshell, the programme will develop local capacities and coordinate a pool of local safety and security advisors who will provide advice, mentorship, training and support for use in the long term. Local partners can then better sustain their work while mitigating emerging risks and protecting against incoming threats.

The pool of mentors will be coordinated and mentored by the Initiative for Sustainable Action across all regions. The goal of the cooperation is to create a framework for: risk assessment and mitigation; for emergency planning and response; as well as for safety and security advice, trainings and measures. This work will be designed and implemented by following the Holistic Security Methodology and via a field-building approach to develop local resources and capacities. To ensure sustainability, all field-building activities will be documented to capture knowledge and learnings. The safety and security work of the programme also includes a collaboration with Frontline Defenders to provide direct response in case of emerging risks.

Conclusions

As a first reflection we can say that our approach on supporting infomediaries has been well received and echoed at international events including the International Open Data Conference in May 2017 in Madrid and the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in December 2017 in Paris. The support for the demand side of contracting data is recognised and welcomed by key international partners and governments as complementary to the efforts supporting the supply side. We have received very positive feedback on our programmatic approach and the partnership model and support package from our local partners. Moreover the kick-off workshops offered a real rich learning experience for all participants. While many of the partners were familiar with Theory of Change and project development methodologies, all of them were surprised by the hands-on and interactive approach. As a result most partners changed their project proposals quite significantly, making them more specific, more thought through and in many cases more realistic and smaller in scope. It is two things to writ a nice proposal that sounds good and another one to really work though the Theory of Change and critically questioning problem statement, approach and assumptions. The work with user personas and user stories also helped partners to better understand their beneficiaries and target groups and use user-centered design to make the projects more relevant for their stakeholders. Last but not least, our partners appreciated the emphasis on risk assessment and management. Safety and security concerns are often not addressed and left with the partners. Making this a prominent part of the programme and investing in the field to strengthen the capacities for defending human right defenders is crucial in times of a shrinking civic space.

Finally we learned that most partner organisations are new to the concepts of open contracting and have a limited understanding on the actual contracting processes in their countries and so a lot has to be learned to identify the entry points for civic engagement and to understand which agency is holding what data from each of the phases in the public procurement cycle. Hence the first phase of the programme will be heavy on capacity development and sensitisation of stakeholders, as well as on mapping the current procurement process and availability and quality of data. After the sprints contracts have been signed and the mentorship programme starts to take shape. This included a series of workshops on the national procurement process and the Open Contracting Data Standard in Guatemala, Kenya, Indonesia and the Philippines to be followed by Tanzania and Malawi later the year.

We are looking forward to bringing all our partners together to our first ever Open Contacting Global Summit, to be held 28-29 November 2017 in Amsterdam. On the day after the summit we will organise our first learning event with all partners to look back and analyse the first phase of the partnership to inform how to shape our collaboration in 2018 and beyond.  I am very excited about the opportunity to work together with such brilliant minds on such an important agenda for social change.

 

Footnotes:

1  A methodology was adapted to assess the readiness for the implementation of an Open Contracting initiative covering different dimensions in society, including political opportunities, legal framework, institutional setup, data management, availability and quality of data, capacities both on the supply and demand side, existing lobby and advocacy initiatives, to identify opportunities and challenges. The assessment methodology is available here.

2 A best estimate by the Center for Global Development says that public contracting for goods, works, and services worldwide is worth approximately US $9.5 trillion per year. See: Center for Global Development.

3 Becky Hogge, 2010. Open Data Study, available at: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/open-data-study-20110519.pdf.

4 The ecosystem refers to the entire set of players in an infomediary chain that may be needed to make the data useful for users.

Fox, J. (2014) Social Accountability: What does the Evidence Really Say? GPSA Working Paper No. 1, Washington: World Bank Global Partnership for Social Accountability programme. Available at: http://gpsaknowledge.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Social-Accountability-What-Does-Evidence-Really-Say-GPSA-Working-Paper-1.pdf.

6 Please see our Capacity Assessment methodology and Self Assessment template

Please see our Outcome Harvesting Introduction, Guidance and  Presentation.

See Hivos strategy