by Karina Kalpschtrej, Melisa De Urieta, José Bisillac, Sabrina Battilana
As COVID-19 swept the globe, the government of Argentina responded by imposing a state of emergency, sidestepping traditional procurement safeguards in the interest of speeding up emergency response. While it was important to provide relief as quickly as possible, the state of emergency also created a series of conditions which allowed corruption to thrive. It is against this backdrop that Poder Ciudadano, a local branch of Transparency International, launched its COVID-19 response monitoring work to ensure transparency and accountability in the government’s pandemic response program.
In July 2020, Poder Ciudadano, in collaboration with the Partnership for Transparency (PTF) designed and later launched the Public Procurement Observatory. This procurement monitoring tool has carried out an exhaustive survey of the public purchases and contracting within the framework of the COVID-19 emergency regulations. The objective of the Observatory is to make available to all people, in a single space and in an accessible format, public information on purchases and contracts made by national agencies during the health emergency. In this way, it becomes possible to exercise effective social control over the procurement process. Increased oversight by engaged citizens increases transparency and promotes accountability, while ensuring the integrity of the public funds involved, with a focus on strengthening access, publicity and integrity of the procurement and contracting system. By December 2020, Poder Ciudadano had tracked more than seven hundred procurement activities valued at $200 million.
Nearly a year has passed since the declaration of the state of emergency in Argentina. Over the course of its response work, Fundación Poder Ciudadano has learned key and enriching lessons that will prove useful to any organization embarking on a similar undertaking. Read Poder’s take on key considerations below:
- Special adaptations of previous capacities to emergency contexts significantly increases the margins of discretion. This means that public procurement corners are cut, and it is harder to find out when and why.
The emergency situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic generated a new scenario in which the increase of corruption risks led to the need to redesign strategies for their detection. In order to speed up response programs, the government established a new procurement and contracting regime where the ordinary processes to mitigate corruption were made more flexible. This relaxing of regulations took place in combination with the volume of purchases made and the significantly increased use of public funds. These factors demonstrate the need to have instruments to carry out concomitant control—almost in real time—of the procurement procedures, in turn increasing the need for the Observatory’s work.
Monitoring activities, driven by the urgency of the situation, focused on consolidating survey circuits tuned to the generation of early warnings that would allow observers to detect irregularities as soon as possible. The adaptation of validated instruments of social control of public procurement to emergency contexts made it possible to incorporate new tools and criteria to improve the performance of the monitoring process in general, and the Observatory’s sensitivity to such detection in particular.
- This situation creates a need for citizen-friendly and open adaptations of the information collected to guarantee the right of access to information on public issues of extreme relevance.
Detailed knowledge of the theoretical and concrete functioning of the emergency procurement system deepened the understanding of Poder Ciudadano’s team. Further, it confirmed, in light of the changes to the system, the need for technically validated surveys. However, such surveys must be accompanied by a citizen-friendly translation, especially in a critical context such as the pandemic response. Providing such translations ensures that the complexity of the processes does not contribute to the lack of transparency or reinforce the barriers to social control of the use of public resources.
- It is important to analyze the entire public procurement cycle with systematic, evidence-based methodologies and a rights-based perspective, especially in emergency situations.
The beginning of the public procurement cycle is central to the analysis of integrity systems in procurement. However, the urgency of the socio-health scenario caused by COVID-19 strengthened the idea that it is necessary to apply systematic, evidence-based methodologies with a rights-based perspective to all stages of the cycle, such as the storage and distribution of the goods procured. This is because the public health crisis caused by the pandemic shone a spotlight on the relationship between public procurement and human rights. Further, it made clear to society as a whole the need to think of corruption not only in terms of economic appropriation of public goods for private purposes, but also as a vector for the deterioration of the exercise of basic rights.
- The relevance of collaborative work with other civil society organizations and government agencies cannot be overstated.
Despite Poder Ciudadano’s vast network, the circumstances of COVID-19 response work yet again confirmed the importance of working with other organizations, whether civil society or not. For example, communications with peer organizations have allowed Poder Ciudadano to corroborate its suspicions that not all purchases and contracts made in the context of the pandemic are published. In addition, Poder was able to share its experience with other organizations so that they could replicate the work of the Observatory. The information analyzed and compiled by the Foundation has also been useful for national control bodies.
Taking into account the lessons learned, Poder Ciudadano expects to be able to continue and strengthen the work done so far and extend it until the end of the declared state of emergency. In addition, due to the great experience acquired in relation to purchases and contracts within the framework of the pandemic, one of the main objectives of the Foundation is to replicate the Observatory and its work methodology throughout the region.
Finally, considering the complexity surrounding the purchase and distribution of vaccines to deal with COVID-19, and especially after the recent scandals in Argentina and Peru in which politicians manipulated or bypassed the public health procurement and distribution system to access coronavirus vaccines for themselves and friends, Poder Ciudadano expects to apply the methodology of monitoring, purchase, and distribution to the delivery of vaccines.
Poder Ciudadano is the Argentine chapter of Transparency International, a civil society organization with more than thirty years of experience in transparency, citizen engagement, and anti-corruption work. To learn more about their groundbreaking work, visit poderciudadano.org. You can also follow them on Twitter @poderciudadano.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of PTF.