While emergency procedures are needed, they must remain publicly accountable for every contract concluded and spent. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is spent.
On March 17 2020 Colombia’s President Ivan Duque declared a state of emergency. As well as measures aimed to limit the spread of the virus, the order relaxed many rules around public procurement.
Under conditions of ‘manifest urgency’ or force majeure, this meant that contracts could be awarded directly to suppliers and approvals and funding could be fast-tracked.
While these approaches can help source supplies faster, they can also raise corruption risks such as price gouging, bribery and the delivery of poor-quality products.
Colombia’s public buying agency, Colombia Compra Eficiente (CCE), looked into how to use its experience with digital tools to help accelerate the process while also ensuring transparency and value for money.
Buyers were encouraged to use CCE’s existing eProcurement platform and guidance from the World Health Organisation to prioritise needs, verify supplier details and check prices.
In addition, several new resources were developed including:
an ‘aggregated buying tool’ or online catalogue enabling bulk buying of emergency materials such as PPE, disinfection services medical equipment
a dedicated website to allow public monitoring of contracts awarded during the pandemic
Guidance for buyers emphasised that contract information must be published openly including:
a clear description of goods, services or works with technical specifications, quantity and quality required
the unit price and total value of goods or services contracted
who signed and approved the contract
how the contract would be supervised
To ensure they were searchable online, the word “COVID-19” had to be used in the title of any contract associated with buying during the pandemic.
Using the new digital tools has allowed CCE to streamline buying during the pandemic while also enabling transparency.
Results so far have included:
251 suppliers joining the COVID-19 framework, 90% of which are small or medium-sized businesses
127bn pesos (US$34m) worth of sales made through the aggregated buying tool
average savings of 14% for buyers using the tool verus the open market
142,000 emergency contracts published using open data standards
CCE launched these tools within 3 weeks of the pandemic hitting Colombia, a process that would normally take 4-6 months of development. That it was able to do so was thanks to having a scalable and adaptable eProcurement system in place before the crisis began.
As the pandemic took hold in Latin America over the summer of 2020, public buying came under increasing scrutiny and corruption scandals began to emerge. In May arrest warrants were issued for 10 Colombian mayors, following incidents of widespread overcharging for essential products.
That the authorities could uncover incidents such as these was thanks in part to an informed public, with access to open data on government buying. This allows those who want to monitor ongoing procurements in real time and report any potential irregularities anonymously.
The pandemic actually provides an opportunity for countries to strengthen anti-corruption and integrity, and so improve overall governance.
As of August 2020 Colombia was seeing unprecedented use of its e-Procurement system and continued to provide access to the aggregated buying tool.