COVID-19 has forced governments to make urgent purchases of goods and services such as beds, medicines, hospital fittings and medical supplies. In these public procurement processes, the existence of corruption cases may limit the effectiveness of efforts to contain the pandemic and involve unnecessary cost overruns that could reduce healthcare to thousands of citizens.
To reduce the risks of corruption associated with public procurement during the COVID-19 emergency, CAF - Latin American development bank - has published a study entitled Technology for Integrity in Times of COVID-19, which shows how new digital solutions, accompanied by an open data policy, could not only change the battlefront in the fight against the coronavirus, but also make a qualitative leap in the adoption of integrity policies.
"Corruption risks often increase in times of crisis. But if new technologies are complemented by data analysis for pandemic monitoring, we would be able to reduce the risks. Open data is essential for optimal management of the health crisis and emergency programs," says Carlos Santiso, director of the State's Directorate for Digital Innovation.
The publication outlines 3 areas where the supply of goods and services can be protected against corruption during the COVID-19 crisis:
- Results-oriented accountability: The aim is to guarantee the destination of resources managed by governments and multilateral organisations, as well as the results of such expenditure in terms of containing the virus. There are open source applications such as OpenRBF that monitor results and performance in healthcare, education and government. By combining georeferencing applications on the progress of the pandemic (such as those developed by Singapore, New Zealand and Spain), with OpenRBF's budget transparency scheme, a permanent overlap would be achieved between the supply maps for pandemic care and the results for curbing it.
- Disclosure of direct emergency contracting: Disclosure in contracting not only allows citizens to be informed of the government's actions, but also maximises the level of response to supply requests. Open contracting helps governments to meet demands under emergency procedures.
- Digitalisation in demand aggregation for governments: A well-known instrument in procurement and contracting for both governments and international organisations is the Price Framework Agreement (PFA), that is, a contract between a buyer and one or more suppliers, for the delivery under special price and supply conditions of certain goods or services. Digitalisation of this procedure through virtual meetings, electronic tendering and even sanctions for non-compliance using electronic means, generates more transparency and speed for the supply of goods with uniform characteristics necessary for the emergency.
The crisis generated by COVID-19 also offers an opportunity for Latin America to adopt integrity policies that reduce corruption in the short, mid and long term. And to achieve this, the use of data and digital technologies will be essential, according to another CAF study published recently. "Transparency should not take a back seat during the crisis; quite the contrary. It is key that Latin American governments integrate the use of data and new technologies into their public procurement processes and thereby mitigate the risks of corruption and address the emergence of the global pandemic in a timely manner," says Santiso.
This second publication draws up an inventory of several initiatives that use data analysis and machine learning to alert authorities to corruption risks, thus integrating a proactive action approach based on the prevention and early detection of possible crimes. These technologies also increase the effectiveness of judicial or administrative investigations and innovate anti-corruption programmes and policies that are based on proven measures such as information campaigns, staff training or traditional audits.
The success and sustainability of this approach requires countries to implement an ambitious public and cross-cutting agenda that focuses on ensuring the quality of data, providing the infrastructure for its storage and investing in the power of information processing, as well as coordination between judicial and administrative bodies. The deterrent power of governments in the data age is not in their ability to sanction, but in their potential to anticipate and prevent corruption.