In about two years, open contracting has moved from interesting concept to buzz word. The promise now is that, ultimately, open contracting will improve service delivery, enhance business opportunities, reduce corruption in procurement sector and improve governance among others. To make the case, we read about huge amounts of money being spent by governments to procure capital goods and services; that a high percentage of bribery cases can be traced to the pursuit of public contracts; and that contracting is the greatest corruption risk for governments.

The dizzying figures and statistics around public contracting should not distract from the daily grind of the ordinary citizen. There are procurement monitors who remind us of the distressing effects of bribery, corruption and the gross misappropriation of funds earmarked for public projects. They tell us about near-tragic stories of women stranded in mid-maternity because of ill-equipped clinics (or none at all) whose construction or refurbishment was entrusted to runaway contractors; or which were actually completed but abandoned because they were situated in isolated districts visited only now and then by stray animals. These are sad tales but, most times, they are the consequence of sheer pilfering, wanton negligence or the uninterested attitude of government officials.

This is what open contracting wants to tackle. By introducing the contested and uncomfortable notion of openness to procurement processes – especially those embarked on by governments – there is a chance that these stories would be less tragic, if not completely extinguished. Openness implies that citizens would cease to be passive recipients of public services and amenities. Rather, they would become active participants in the execution of a process that truly affects their lives. Obviously, they wouldn’t carry out the projects by themselves; but they would try to ensure that whoever does would be responsible to them – and not just to the one who gets the kickback. Yet, the real question is this: to what extent can citizens be really involved and to what extent can the government be open enough? The answer to this twofold question will determine the extent to which open contracting can actually work.

At this point, let me tell a little story. At a certain remotely located university in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria, students have taken up the noble initiative of educating less-privileged primary school children in the community by teaching them English and Mathematics. It has been labelled as a ‘corporate social responsibility’ project of the university but the students have come to see it a little differently. For them, the service project offers an unrepeatable opportunity to go beyond their comfort zones and ‘make a positive impact in society’ by giving those young children ‘a chance to become successful men and women in the future’.

To ensure that this actually happens, the students decided to put themselves to task by gathering data to measure the effectiveness of their service delivery to the kids. To determine the actual impact of their project, they keep track of student progress (for example, frequency of class attendance as well as their improvement over time based on clearly defined outcomes) and tutor performances (number of hours spent with the each child, average completion times for modules). They map datasets against each other, draw out key metrics and generate useful statistics. Why? So that they can develop new teaching methods and techniques ‘with which to pass on as much information and knowledge within the shortest time.’ Even more interesting, they make this data available to everyone in the university so that more people can share in their commitment to ‘improving the quality of education’ for the more than five hundred out-of-school children in the community.

No doubt, it’s a laudable initiative. But why do I bring up this story? After all, the experience of these students in a poor, remote and half-abandoned community is not much different from those of the procurement monitors mentioned above or of similar civil society organisations. The difference lies in the innovative use of data. Here, data isn’t just passive; it is active and operative at two key stages: first, at the level of generation, during which the students collect information as part of the process of tutoring the children; second, at the level of utilisation, which entails capitalising on the data gathered by ploughing the results back into the process in order to improve it. The crucial point, however, is that data isn’t employed just for the sake of it. In this project, data has a human face. The task of generating and utilising data has a specific purpose: to make lives better. Clearly, data empowers (as it has done for the students), but only because it is driven by a human (and humane) purpose.

With this, I can suggest an answer to the first half of my earlier question: citizens can be involved in the proper execution of projects if they are empowered by data. Empowerment implies two things: first, that they can easily obtain the right data; second, that they can effectively use the data. The latter indicates that people should be able to utilise data in such a way that it helps to address the reason for which it was gathered, namely, to solve human problems. But doing this assumes that the data can actually do that. After all, just like statistics, data isn’t neutral. This point leads to the focus of the second half of my question: the government.

The largest chunk of the open data spectrum is controlled by the government. It is called ‘open government data’. When government data is open, it is especially powerful. This is because governments and their agencies often have the capacity and funds to gather very large amounts of data with potential for major economic benefits. Access to government data can greatly empower citizens and can help to solve problems. It is possible to assume that if the students could lay their hands on government data, they would be considering more far-reaching ways to tackle the problem of education in their community.

They would ask: why are there no schools in Ibeju-Lekki – or why are they so run-down? Then they would check the data to find out how much government spending was set aside for the construction and refurbishment of schools in the area. If the appropriate funds were allocated, they would venture to ask: who was contracted to build the schools and when? They would proceed to look up the data for the names of the contractors as well as the dates and duration for the projects. For good measure, they would also examine the track records of the contractors, their location and their contact details. In the event that insufficient resources were apportioned for schools in the community, the students would be eager to find out why. So they would look up the data for leads: what factors determine the government’s decision to build schools in one location and not another? Which local government areas are given greater priority? Is education actually a priority sector in comparison with others? If it is, what kinds of costs receive greater attention: infrastructure (school buildings) or services (teachers’ salaries)?

But why so many questions? Simple. Because the students want to improve the quality of education for themselves and those underserved children. So it’s not the data per se that they are after. It’s the human impact of it that matters. But if they are going to get anywhere, the government would have to seek that face as well, otherwise it wouldn’t be interested in producing the right data or any data at all. Therefore the extent to which governments can be open enough in the execution of projects depends a lot on how extensively (and accurately) they make data available for its citizens. And that, in turn, depends on whether they see the human component behind the data.

So can open contracting work? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ but with a caveat. Open contracting presents an incredible opportunity for governments to carry out the task of providing important data about its procurement processes to citizens who can use it to identify and recommend ways to solve problems in their communities. But for this symbiosis will function as expected, everyone has to look beyond the data. If they do, they’ll find a human face somewhere asking to make the world a better place, by making lives better.

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