If you want citizens to trust you, reform procurement

By Andrew Greenway

Andrew Greenway writes on the lessons from Latin America’s e-procurement initiatives.

Procurement is one of those topics that rarely enjoys the spotlight. If it appears in the news at all, it tends to be a corruption scandal or an episode of disastrous overspending. No news has been good news, but there are signs that this is starting to change.

Take Peru, which lost its President this March to a scandal involving a huge construction company making illicit payments in return for lucrative contracts. Government responded by bringing its processes into the internet era, using tech to make things clearer and cleaner.

Earlier this month, Peru launched a beta version of a brand new digital service, designed to make the profile of every company supplying goods and services to the state open for everyone to see.

The project is a collaboration between the Supervisory Body for State contracting (OSCE) and the digital government team working in the centre of Peru’s government. Working together, they have done methodical user research to gather insights from the many actors involved in such a registry; government suppliers large and small, and public officials in the many departments relying on those companies.

This exercise hasn’t been run as a typical public consultation. The team has been working out in the field, talking to companies and finding out which parts of the existing registry service have been most painful for them. These insights, gathered week by week, have been translated into small, incremental improvements to the new registry prototype.

From the start, the team's attitude to digitisation not been to simply put the same registry online - turning paper into web pages. Instead, they thought of this as an opportunity find out the user needs, and considered this project as a way to provide all citizens with a simpler, clear way of understanding what the government is doing.

By doing so, they created a tool that makes it easier for anyone to hold the state to account, and offers some protection against the risk of corruption. As a beta version, there is still a lot of work still to do on the service, and an agile team will continue to iteratively develop the new register over the coming months.

As well as building transparency, e-procurement driven can boost the role governments can play as market makers. The UK launched the first version of Digital Marketplace in 2014. Building on previous work, the Digital Marketplace was designed to make it easier for public servants to buy technology and services from the widest possible range of suppliers.

Just four years prior to its launch, the UK government's relationship with the technology market was notoriously cozy. Government technology was described as an 'oligopoly' by Parliament; fewer than a dozen companies scooped up 80% of the UK's £16 billion of annual IT spending.

Since its launch, the Digital Marketplace has seen £3.2 billion worth of business pass through it, with 48% of that going to small and medium sized companies. It has accelerated the growth of hundreds of businesses, and created a model that is now being copied around the world . Once again, it was the product of a multidisciplinary team, focused relentlessly on user needs.

For those wise enough to pay it attention, government procurement is a powerful lever of change and valuable source of political victories. Perhaps it should enjoy more time in the spotlight.