Contracts, Data and Investigations 63
The new normal of pandemic procurement, South African datasets, investigation tips
In this newsletter, we cover stories about the use and abuse of public contracts and provide tips and insights on how to investigate public procurement. We’d love to feature your stories and hear what you are working on! We hope you like our slightly updated format in this edition and like us if you’ve enjoyed the read.
[What we are keeping an eye on]
Global/US: Two years into the pandemic, we are reaching a new stage of public procurement. Vaccines and medicines to treat COVID-19 will become a staple for every country’s medical procurement. The terms of Pfizer’s US$5.3bn contract with the US government for its COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid – at $530 for each 5-day course for 10 million doses – show that governments have more room to negotiate at this point in the pandemic. NPR’s Sydney Lupkin looks at the surprising clauses of the contract, including a price match guarantee. While this may be true for the US and European countries, this is certainly not the case for large parts of the developing world that are yet to secure access to the first doses of the vaccine. Check the article for the full contract.
South Africa: Journalists and civil society are trying to make sense of COVID-19 spending. Civil society organization OpenUp provides an in-depth look at the country’s COVID-19 contracts in the Daily Maverick, including the biggest spenders, top items, highest paid suppliers and R8.3bn (US$540m) in spending obscured in the “other” category. The full dataset of scraped data is available here. The Mail&Guardian’s Adam Oxford digs through the Special Investigative Unit’s 737 page report on corruption in pandemic procurement. The article includes a complete list of the nearly 1,000 referrals for administrative or criminal actions reported, searchable by individuals and organizations.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s problems with state capture stretching back to 2009 have been revealed in the reports of Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The two-part account provides insights into the role contracts can play in cementing undue influence on public decision-making. According to the inquiry, illicit activities were concentrated on the state freight operator Transnet, whose deals accounted for 72.2% of all public contracts linked to state capture. The entity irregularly awarded R41.2-billion in contracts to companies linked to the Guptas or their associates, reports Greg Nicolson for the Daily Maverick.
UK: Earlier this month, a high court judge ruled that VIP lanes were unlawful. “There is evidence that opportunities were treated as high priority even where there were no objectively justifiable grounds for expediting the offer,” Justice Finola O’Farrell said. The health department is writing off £9bn in protective equipment that was either substandard, defective, past its use-by date or dramatically overpriced, writes the Guardian’s David Conn. The report is available here – the juicy details are buried on page 198-202. The most problematic item was masks deemed defective or unfit – totalling £3.3bn. Here’s a more detailed analysis by public procurement expert Pedro Telles.
[€10 quintillion] When we were reviewing Europe’s Tenders Electronic Daily data on contracts, we came across a procurement procedure for “Language training in Arabic and Russian” in Italy with an estimated value of 10 quintillion euros – multiple times all the world’s money and markets. It stood out as a quintillion is over the limit for a 64-bit signed integer (9,223,372,036,854,775,807), requiring special handling in order to process it. While the procedure was from 2011 and this was very likely a data input issue, we recommend always sense checking your data.
This business intelligence dashboard in the Kyrgyz Republic provides insights on more than 60,000 contracts in medical procurement over the last two years. Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting’s Olga Ruslanova has used this data to analyze the country’s $20m spending on COVID-19 procurement in 2020, including how much was spent on protective equipment and COVID-19 treatments and the top suppliers.
[Tips & insights]
Romina Colman, OCCRP’s Latin America data editor, has been investigating public contracts at Argentina’s La Nación Data and with the Red Palta network. Here’s her advice for digging into procurement:
When starting to work with public contracts:
Never expect data to be perfect. Always use filters to identify inconsistencies, gaps, or elements that stand out before running an analysis. In general, cleaning and verifying the data is 90% of the work and 10% is analyzing it.
When information is not available as open data:
There are other opportunities to collect data on public contracts. When doing access to information requests always specify that the data is handed over in open formats. And you can build small databases by pulling out relevant information from documents published during the process. When doing so, think about how to make this database public so that others can re-use it.
Any other lessons:
What is not being said or what can’t be seen can be equally as important as what is stated clearly. Not everything is about corruption. In many cases, there are problems in the planning process or systemic inefficiencies. It is important to make them visible to improve the system.
Looking into public contracts? A good place to start is our tipsheet for journalists and this guide that we developed together with the Global Investigative Journalism Network. For recommendations, resources and tools on COVID-19 contracts, check our COVID-19 resource page. Interested in a training or background conversation? Just reach out to Sophie and Georg at email@example.com.
This newsletter has been put together by the Open Contracting Partnership. Thanks for reading. Did a friend forward you this email? Click here to subscribe