Learning from disclosure: How do we ensure transparency?

One of the most important indicators of CoST's success is when a government chooses to integrate CoST disclosure requirements into its own systems. This begins to make disclosure of information from publicly funded infrastructure projects a routine activity within Government. In recent months we have seen significant steps towards CoST countries achieving this aspiration.

In this latest blog John Hawkins, CoST International Secretariat Programme Manager, identifies a number of emerging lessons that could benefit both existing and future CoST countries. This includes that disclosing on websites may not be enough to ensure transparency.

Late last year the Guatemalan Government became the first country to make the disclosure of the project information in the CoST format a legal requirement for all public procuring entities. Steps have also been taken to introduce a similar legal requirement in Malawi, Vietnam and Tanzania before the end of the year. This is an exciting time for CoST as it means a large amount of information could soon become available to the public in the respective countries. From this four themes have emerged.

1.     Disclosure is increasingly centralised within Government

Where public procurement is more centralised within Government, powerful national public procurement authorities are beginning to take responsibility for disclosure. For example, the Ethiopian Public Procurement and Property Administration Authority (PPPAA) will use its legal mandate to demand that government procuring entities disclose the CoST Project Information Standard through its website. CoST Tanzania is attempting to persuade its Public Procurement Regulatory Authority to adopt the same policy using a similar legal basis. In Malawi, the Office of the Director of Public Procurement is introducing the disclosure requirements as part of a package amendments’ to the Malawi Public Procurement Act. This approach is sensible as it builds on the disclosure requirements enshrined in current public procurement legislation.

In a more decentralised public sector such as the UK, it had been anticipated that procuring entities would disclose on their own website. However, the open data revolution is leading to a more centralised approach with large government agencies required to disclose information on the data.gov website. For example, the Philippines MSG has begun discussions with Philippines Government to see if disclosure could occur through their ‘data.gov’ portal.

2.     Involve the right Government representatives

National CoST Programmes are overseen by Multi-Stakeholder Groups (MSG) with representatives from civil society, industry as well as government. Having key Government institutions such as the national procurement authority (Malawi, Tanzania and Ethiopia) represented on the MSG has helped MSGs to understand the most likely legal or regulatory vehicle for incorporating the disclosure requirements. It has also proved to be a gateway to influence these organisations.

3.     Procuring entity capacity building is essential for compliance

Any new disclosure requirement can only be considered a success if procuring entities comply with it. The CoST pilot (2008 to 2011) highlighted that poor compliance with current disclosure requirements was due to a lack of knowledge of the law and an absence of internal policy and procedures. To overcome this, the Ethiopian and Guatemala MSGs have trained almost 500 procuring entity officials on the disclosure requirements. This means that ignorance will no longer be considered an excuse for non-disclosure.

4.     Is disclosure on websites sufficient in ensuring transparency?

The open data revolution is undoubtedly going to be a powerful tool for improving public services. But I worry that those leading this revolution can get carried away, turning off ordinary people from something that can potentially improve their lives.

At last years’ Open Government Summit, I was lost with some of the language and wondered who the open data revolution was really for. Is it for a small number of data specialists who are excited by the potential of data manipulation or is it about informing the public?  The answer is both. This means transparency professionals have to understand how people access information and avoid over-reliance on websites.

CoST Ethiopia has done exactly that. A recent survey identified that over 80% of the population principally access information through the radio compared with only 2% who access information via the internet. They have used this data to provide guidance and templates to government agencies on disclosing information through the radio, television and public sign boards on construction sites as well as disclosing through websites.

This approach will mean that the public can access through mechanisms that suit them, ensuring that transparency will be achieved.

Date Published: 25 July 2014
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