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Source: Transparency International

This is part two of a two-part series, Procuring for Life, about public procurement during the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. Read the introduction or part one

For now, the main priority for countries around the world is to fight the spread of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic and save as many lives as possible. However, governments are currently struggling with a scarcity of medical supplies and rushed procurement practices that result in lower quality goods, price gouging, undue influence and limited access to information, among other corruption risks.

These risks not only increase opportunities for corruption, they can also cost lives.

What can we do to reduce corruption risks?

Contracting authorities should limit price inflation and ensure the highest quality of procured goods compliant with medical and safety standards.

Promoting clean contracting is an easy way for governments to prevent the misuse of public money. This includes increasing transparency within the procurement process and coordinating a centralised response between national, regional and international governing bodies.

Ensure transparency throughout the procurement cycle

Purchasing authorities should make public contract information publicly available regardless of request. This goes hand-in-hand with ensuring citizens’ right to access to information and monitor how public money is spent without needing to file a separate information request every time, for every contract.

To achieve greater transparency, procurement data needs to be available and accessible in a timely way through a centralised platform. This allows stakeholders to monitor contracts at national and local levels with the help of e-procurement portals and open data platforms. 

Ukraine

For example, our chapter, Transparency International Ukraine in partnership with other NGOs, helped establish an online procurement platform, ProZorro, which is considered one of the best global platforms for monitoring public spending.

Although Ukrainian law loosened restrictions for public procurement during the global health crisis, public buyers are still obligated to publish contracts within one day of a signed purchasing order. This information is currently captured by ProZorro.

Each ProZorro entry includes overall information about a particular contract that is publicly available. As a result, organizations like Transparency International Ukraine can keep citizens informed and updated on COVID-19 related purchases that affect the health of Ukrainian citizens.

Honduras

In Honduras, our national chapter is utilising a long-lasting integrity pact with the government to monitor the purchase of medical supplies. An Integrity Pact (IP) is a legally binding document between a contracting authority, bidders and a civil society monitor. It’s both a civic monitoring tool and approach to public contracting.

An IP commits a contracting authority and their bidders to a series of best practices and ensures that both parties will provide maximum transparency, while giving an independent monitor full access to their procurement process.

More of a long-term strategy, an IP is not the first choice during a crisis due to the tool’s moderate operational costs and sometimes lengthy initial set-up.

However, setting up an IP in advance of a crisis is ideal for producing better results. In Honduras, an existing IP may help our chapter provide more effective monitoring of public spending during this pandemic.

Better multi-level planning

Clean, centralized contracting also allows for better planning, purchasing and distribution of resources at a national level, which can help reduce problems of price gouging and corruption. 

Although buying goods and services at a central level could extend distribution times and sometimes overlook local needs, governments can mitigate against these issues by establishing central crisis committees and inter-agency working groups to improve coordination of medical equipment purchases.

In addition to national coordination, better regional and global coordination is also important. Establishing an international crisis coordination body would allow for more proactive public contracting and redistribution of medical equipment according to the needs of specific countries. However, despite several obvious benefits, to date, no such coordinating body exists.

Nevertheless, the European Union has shown that joint procurement is possible. In particular, the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement for the procurement of medical countermeasures (JPA) launched a single EU procurement process for EU countries to purchase vital medical equipment, such as masks, gloves, goggles and face shields. This will help national governments be more strategic and proactive in teaming up with other countries on joint transnational procurements.

What’s next?

The procurement risks in the upcoming months are hard to predict. However, if data on public contracting during the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic is captured correctly and made publicly available in a timely way, it will allow oversight authorities, law enforcement agencies, civil society, and journalists to monitor the use of public funds and prevent unnecessary loss of life to corruption.

Effective monitoring will also help governments pursue disciplinary actions, sanctions, and penalties when there are cases of misuse of funds.

As the global community continues to flatten the curve and the health crisis levels off, governments will need to move from relaxing restrictions which are necessary in a global emergency, to implementing a tighter, more efficient procurement framework.

As a result, countries will need to gradually re-enact more comprehensive public procurement rules and laws. This is particularly important for those countries currently experiencing state capture, including where drug cartels and organised crime manipulate public contracts at the expense of citizens.

Public procurement should not be used to revamp national economies by bypassing anti-corruption laws and practices at the expense of transparency, accountability and political integrity. The disclosure of anonymous company ownership and beneficial owners in public procurement is also critical to highlighting who is really behind the wheel of the supply chain.

Finally, public procurement is currently operating under unprecedented and extraordinary conditions, which call for the development of new anti-corruption tools and approaches. To make these work, the proposed initiatives and approaches need to be time-sensitive in their set-up, building on existing institutions and legislation, as well as not interfering with or delaying the response to the crisis.

First response: Procure medical supplies at any cost (and risk) Read part one in this series

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