For governments to carry out their day-to-day functions, procurement -- or their ability to purchase goods and services -- is critical. It is both a service function and a strategic policy tool which can help achieve a broad range of social and economic welfare objectives. It cuts across all areas of public administration and builds on cooperation among multiple public and private stakeholders.
When the World Bank investigates and sanctions a major corporation for corruption related to one of its project, the deterrent impact is readily apparent. However, not every case the World Bank investigates is a major corruption case. In the past year, the World Bank Integrity Vice Presidency (INT) received many complaints related to fraud, and it is important to demonstrate responsiveness to complainants who report credible allegations as well as fix the weaknesses identified. Sanctioning cases of fraud also sends a strong message about abiding by high integrity standards in World Bank-financed projects.
Left unchecked, fraud erodes development effectiveness. It often coincides with poor project implementation, which can result in collapsing infrastructure or the distribution of counterfeit drugs. It causes costly delays and can lead to direct financial losses for countries which cannot afford it. Fraud also fosters a negative enabling environment, creating opportunities for more serious and systemic misconduct to occur.
These gigantic financing needs will continue to place a huge burden on government budgets. Simply put, they cannot be addressed without private sector participation. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can help to close this growing funding deficit and to meet the immense demands for new or improved infrastructure and service delivery in sectors like water, transport, and energy (among others). In countries with diverse and numerous needs,PPPs can fill gaps in implementation capacity as well as the scarcity of public funds.
Public procurement is not among the most popular topics in development circles. However, consider just these three ways in which procurement is probably one of the most indispensable elements that make up a truly capable state:
First, without effective procurement, hospitals wait for drugs, teachers for textbooks, and cities for roads. Whenever a news item surfaces about drugs shortages in hospitals, schools without textbooks or failing road networks, the reader may be looking at a procurement problem. Without efficient procurement, money gets wasted on a very large scale. Many developing countries channel significant proportions of their budgets through the procurement system – even marginal savings can add up very fast. Third, public procurement is a part of the government that citizens see every day. Lack of transparency and corruption in procurement directly affects citizens, and the losses to corruption are estimated in the billions of dollars every year. Corruption in procurement is a big problem that affects rich countries as well.
Strong public procurement systems are central to well-functioning public financial management institutions and good public sector governance. But how can governments ensure public procurement is efficient? Traditionally, the recommended approach has emphasized the importance of adequate rules that encourage competitive bidding. This involves transparent tender documents and processes with as little discrimination as possible, an independent procurement agency that would set standards and monitor their enforcement, and an independent appeals body to hear complaints of participating bidders.
It’s difficult to do a background check of a company based in a foreign country with operations overseas.
It’s difficult to check to see whether a document is falsified or not.
It’s difficult to …
I heard a lot of that from the audience of the workshop on World Bank’s Anti-Corruption Framework & Common Integrity Risks in World Bank-Funded Projects in Hanoi recently. Majority of the participants were project managers and procurement staff from Project Management Units managing World Bank-funded projects.
Presentations from the Bank’s Integrity Unit show that corruption increases costs, reduces quality, delays impacts on poverty, creates public disgrace and even generates social instability. For a person who often has to look at results of development projects like me, corruption eats into the meager meal of the ethnic minority people in the northern mountainous areas of Vietnam, takes education away from girls in learning age, and lower the quality of hospitals for old people in Mekong river delta.
ICT-related procurements in the education sector, especially large scale ones, are not easy. A recent World Bank Internal Evaluation Group report noted that "ICT procurement has been highlighted as a major implementation constraint in several country and regional portfolio reviews and is a critical dimension of design." Rapid changes in technology mean that many ministries of education have a hard time keeping up with what's current in the market, let alone what might be coming next.
Even in places where anti-corruption measures are well considered and implemented, government auditors and external watchdog groups may be challenged to identify dodgy practices in some ICT-related areas. (Have you ever read the fine print on large scale bandwidth contracts for schools? Such things are often not for the feint of heart.) It is not unknown to hear whisperings about vendors -- or consultants close to them -- providing 'assistance' of various sorts in writing a request for proposals (or certain technical specs that appear in such RFPS), and of course vendors often hope that their showcase pilot projects may inspire ministries of education to think in certain ways about what is possible, and even desirable. For many ministries of education, the line between 'influence' and 'undue influence' in such cases can be very clear in some circumstances, but rather hazy in others.
As part of a very interesting Q&A period after a presentation at the World Bank a few years ago, mention was made about some of the challenges faced in a state in southern India which was exploring whether so-called thin client solutions might be worth considering in its schools. Essentially, the issue was this: Traditional practice when procuring computers for schools had focused on ensuring that each computer met a defined set of minimum technical specifications. In an alternative, 'thin client' set-up, it was possible to use workstations that had less robust specifications, provided they were connected to a powerful server whose processing power substitutes for that of the client computer. To oversimplify:
[-] 'traditional' approach: lots of pretty powerful computers
[-] 'alternative' approach: lots of relatively underpowered computers, connected to one very powerful computer
The point here is not to imply that one type of arrangement is on its face better or worse. Rather, it is to highlight that, if you write an RFP in a certain way -- in our example here, requiring that *every* computer meet a certain relatively high technical specification (processing speed, hard drive size, etc.) -- you may exclude proposals that feature non-traditional or 'alternative' or new approaches.
One way around this is to put more emphasis on functional specifications, rather than technical specifications, in certain components of your RFP. Not sure what this means in practice? When discussing such issues with ministries of education, I often point to an RFP at the heart of a procurement process in the U.S. state of Maine as a way to highlight an approach to procurement that is, at least in terms of most of the places where the World Bank works helping to advise education leaders, rather rare. While I am certainly no procurement expert -- thankfully we have plenty of very good ones at the World Bank to whom I can refer people -- I offer the comments below based on many discussions with ministries of education about their challenges in this regard, in case doing so might be of any interest.
The World Bank is currently working with a few countries that are planning for the procurement of lots of digital learning materials. In some cases, these are billed as 'e-textbooks', replacing in part existing paper-based materials; in other cases, these are meant to complement existing curricular materials. In pretty much all cases, this is happening as a result of past, on-going or upcoming large scale procurements of lots of ICT equipment. Once you have your schools connected and lots of devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) in the hands of teachers and students, it can be rather useful to have educational content that runs on whatever gadgets you have introduced into to help aid and support teaching and learning. In this regard, we have been pleased to note fewer countries pursuing one of the prominent worst practices in ICT use in education that we identified a few years ago: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware."
At least initially, many education authorities in middle- and low-income countries seem to approach the large-scale procurement of digital learning materials in much the same way that they viewed purchases of textbooks in the past. On its face, this is quite natural: If you have tried and tested systems in place to buy textbooks, why not use them to buy 'e-textbooks' as well? (We'll leave aside for a moment questions about whether such systems to procure textbooks actually worked well -- that's another discussion!) As with many things that have to do with technology in some way, things become a little more complicated the more experience you have wrestling with them.
Although many events from the Middle East and North Africa region have enjoyed large press coverage and headlines, one has remained, to date, a rather well-kept secret: the inclusion of governance and a dedicated provision on Public Procurement in the new Moroccan Constitution, adopted by referendum on July 1, 2011. In doing so, Morocco has joined the very small list of countries (i.e., South Africa and the Philippines) to grant a constitutional status to this rather technical field, the impact of which will be progressively felt in the world (even outside the small world of procurement lawyers), as it affects how government money is converted into goods and works like roads, schools, vaccines, etc.