Procurement Disclosure in the Slovak Republic
[The following is an abridgement of a longer case study report conducted by the author on behalf of the Sunlight Foundation in the summer of 2013, as part of a broader research program looking at the impacts of technology enabled transparency policy around the world.]
In 2011, new procurement regulations in the Slovak Republic mandated the implementation of comprehensive e-procurement and required that all government contracts be published online in a centralized repository. While there are still serious problems with sanctioning and enforcement, the widespread publication of procurement data online has fundamentally reshaped the civil sector and media oversight ecosystem:
- Civil society organizations (CSOs) can conduct new and broader analysis, and enable media intermediaries.
- Tips now come more frequently from the public, rather than just from insiders.
TI-Slovakia now maintains an online very usable portal called "Open Public Procurement," built off the procurement data they have scraped and structured (at notable cost) from public sources. The availability of the data online in an easily digestible form has changed the character of how suspect tenders are brought to light. Before the reforms, whistleblowers would alert journalists or watchdogs of suspicious proceedings who would then file FOI requests. Corruption could only be exposed from within: “someone would have to know that something wrong was going on and try to get that information from the public body.”1Now it is possible for journalists and CSOs to proactively monitor procurement and highlight suspicious cases:
In the past tips came from companies who felt passed over, and sometimes from officials. So, it often happened for personal or private gains. Now this is still the case, but a lot more come from local activists and individuals. People who have access to this information, who just care and who don’t like it. That is mostly the case for tenders in smaller cities and in smaller places.2
According to Adam Valček, “Previously, only a few people have read the contract, because contracts were unavailable.” Now “there are more tips, because people [are] reading contracts on the web.”3
Veronika Folentova offered an example tip that was representative of these new sources. Teachers, she said, sent in information about Ministry of Education procurements for flowers in the amount of 9,900 Euros, and a contract for 36 bottles of alcohol for 132 Euros each.4 These small examples paint a picture of a type of contextualized, public and participatory oversight that would have been impossible without online publication. Lower barriers to using public information make this type of engagement possible.
This access has made difference for businesses too. Robert Kicina noted that the only way to discover tender restriction manipulation is through public control and access to tenders. According to him, it is now easy for competitors to “look this up and send it to the media. This is the only mechanism that works in Slovakia...It is used by entrepreneurs to protect themselves from unfair competition and unfair procurement.“5
Local engagement of this kind brings an important type of diffuse knowledge to bear, which is otherwise hard to capture. At the local level, people are much more aware of relevant context. They may know who the mayor is friends with, and which local businesses have relationships with people of influence. Because of this contextual knowledge local activists can notice malfeasance that would not be evident to a researcher farther removed from the process.
The data that civil sector organizations have scraped and structured has enabled systematic analysis that was previously impossible.
TI-Slovakia was able to conduct research that showed an increase in competition from 2.3 bids per tender in 2009 to 3.6 bids per tender in 2011, a positive indicator for the impact of reforms (Sipos 2012).
Numbers of this kind were unavailable before the reforms. Citing a problematic, and “amateurish” lack of analytic capacity within the government, Sipos said “basically nobody had [these numbers], even the office of public procurement in Slovakia[...] Nobody noticed what was happening.”6
The electronic availability of procurement information has greatly increased capacity across the civil sector:
Before the publishing of the huge amount of data... we needed to go through all contracts [individually] and now we can select hundreds or thousands of them which are suspicious and mark them [...] we don’t need to waste our capacities on searching and going through all of them. We can do it electronically. We don’t need to request them according to the FOI law, going through all of them, so it increased our capacity very much.7
Adam Valček and Veronika Folentova both stressed their reliance on this civil sector ecosystem in their work as journalists.8Procurement processes are highly technical, and procurement data is often dense. Organizations like Fair Play and TI help make both the data and relevant expertise accessible. In fact, Veronika mentioned that she had taken a course on procurement offered by the Fair Play Alliance.9 By building civic tools like the Open Public Procurement Portal and serving as expert intermediaries, these civil sector groups have lowered the barriers for journalists and ultimately the public to engage with public procurement.
Public procurement disclosure in Slovakia offers encouragement and caution about the effectiveness of transparency in combatting corruption. Watchdogs and journalists are now able to scrutinize more procurement proceedings, more intelligently refine their searches for suspect procurements and ultimately conduct more research, investigation and analysis. This expanded capacity has increased the likelihood that improper processes will be uncovered. However, there are still gains to be made by further lowering those costs. Data should all be proactively released in machine-readable bulk formats, which would save CSOs and researchers significant costs, thereby enabling them to better focus their resources on expanding their oversight work.
Government Office for Public Procurement, Slovakia. “EVO Public Tenders Overview.”https://evo.gov.sk/evo/ethics.nsf/public_tenders2!OpenView (Accessed July 20, 2013).
Government Office of Public Procurement, Slovakia. Questionnaire by Alexander Furnas. July 15, 2013. Available: http://assets.sunlightfoundation.com.s3.amazonaws.com/files/Slovakian Office of Public Procurement Questionnaire Responses.docx (Accessed July 25, 2014).
Furnas, Alexander. Transparency Case Study: Public Procurement in the Slovak Republic. Washington, D.C: Sunlight Foundation, 2013.
Jan Pavel (Professor in the department of finance and accounting, University of Economics, Prague). Questionnaire by Alexander Furnas. July 23, 2013. Available: http://assets.sunlightfoundation.com.s3.amazonaws.com/files/Dr. Pavel Questionnaire Responses.docx. (Accessed July 25, 2014).
Sipos, Gabriel. Analýza kvality verejného obstarávania na Slovensku v rokoch 2009- 2011. Bratislava: Transparency International Slovakia, 2012.