Published on Let's Talk Development

Do good things come to those who wait for public procurement?

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“Good things come to those who wait” is a popular saying often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. In fact, neither is this accurate, nor is it truly Lincoln’s. The full proverb is “good things come to those who wait but only the things left by those who hustle.” The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dates it to the early 16th century, some three hundred years before Lincoln’s birth.

Fast forward two centuries. We tested the veracity of this proverb with newly-collected data on the law and practice of public procurement in 187 countries. Together with professors Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University we study the efficiency of procurement processes, in particular in road maintenance. If the first half of the proverb is true, the longer it takes to procure the maintenance of a road, the better its eventual quality. If the full quote is true, quality will not come with time.

The answer is apparent in Figure 1: Higher quality of roads, as measured by the World Economic Forum, is associated with less time in procurement. The horizontal axis represents the time it takes to complete all necessary procurement processes, using data collected by our team for 2019. The vertical axis shows the measure of the quality of roads, based on a global survey of business executives in the same year. It seems that those who hustle get better quality too.

Figure 1: The less time it takes to procure public works, the better the quality


Let’s consider a few possible explanations. First, it can be that a lengthier procurement process erodes the ability of urban planners to budget road maintenance, especially if road works are done on an annual budget cycle. Second, it may be that delays are due to negotiating bribes and that a share of the money dedicated to public works is wasted. Or it can be that by the time procurement is ready the condition of the road has changed so dramatically that the procured specifications no longer apply.

Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that faster is better. In an earlier blog we showed that Korea wins the prize for time-efficiency in public procurement. China comes close, as do Canada, Finland, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland among rich countries. These are countries known for high-quality infrastructure overall, not just roads. Other advanced economies known for good infrastructure – for example, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Germany – have time-efficient procurement processes too. These are also countries where institutions are known for their capacity to ensure strict adherence to regulations.

Venezuela has the lengthiest procurement process, and the country is not acknowledged for good road quality by business executives. Cameroon, Iran, Lesotho and Mozambique also have room to speed up their procurement process for road maintenance.   

When it comes to public procurement, we can safely say that “good things come to those who hustle, while strictly following procurement regulations.” Not as catchy a quote but supported by the data.


Erica Bosio

Senior Public Sector Specialist, Governance Global Practice

Simeon Djankov

Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

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