One month ago, a 2-minute animated video on the inflation of public contracts was shared with Nigerians through social media platforms. The online comments that followed the video showed little or no surprise that public contracts are being inflated by state officials and private contractors.
In fact, it seemed that contract inflation is publicly perceived as the status quo that cannot be changed. The sobering reality of this resignation and acceptance of inflated contracts in Nigeria is that as a people, we lose a lot more than we are often conscious of when contracts are inflated. This is however not an entirely hopeless case. We can use what we have now to build systems that make it difficult for contracts to be inflated. A way of achieving this would be to start to ask for standard pricing benchmarks for Public contracts and for readily available access to procurement related information.
When the budget proposals for 2014 became publicly accessible on the website of the Budget office, Nigerians discovered that there was a proposed allocation of over 200 Million Naira for food supplies to the State House Head Quarters. This discovery was met with public outrage especially when every Nigerian is aware of the cost of food; which is significantly less than the proposed allocation. In response to the public outcry, the Budget Office seems to have reacted by making the budget proposal for 2015 publicly inaccessible. For 2015, what is publicly accessible is a summary of the proposed areas for spending in 2015.
Similarly, last year, procurement monitors went through the procurement process for hospital goods and infrastructure and quite easily, a price comparison was carried out for procured Hilux vans, but when it came to hospital infrastructure such as laboratories, price comparisons were not possible. This is quite simply because public goods such as laboratories or bridges are not what individuals procure; so the estimates for such contracts are harder to determine. In addition, public contracts are often lump procurements with several different components making up one public contract. However, each of these complex public contracts have individual components whose pricing estimates can be determined based on their specifications. For as long as there is little or no public awareness of the detailed estimated prices of such public contracts, we leave room for contracts to be inflated.
Nigeria’s Public Procurement Law anticipated the problem of inflated contracts that could arise from complex public contracts and mandated that standard prices for public goods, works and services are determined, recorded and accessible. In addition, the law requires clear specifications for public contracts. If such information is available and publicly accessible, then it becomes harder for a public contract to be inflated. If Nigeria is truly committed to eliminating graft, then we need to put such systems in place where comparisons can be made across planned and actual government spending.
Apart from the need to eliminate graft in itself, there is another clear reason why we need publicly accessible information around government spending. We need improved public services that are accessible to Nigerians. No matter how much development, resuscitation or transformation efforts the government puts into the public service, leakages in the public resource system would always work against such efforts and the consequences are much more than are bargained for. It would translate into the loss of lives; not only through the failure of poorly implemented public services, but also through a rise in violence by those who are frustrated by the lack of essential public services. This is not hypothetical. Our history and current reality in Nigeria bears witness to violent protests that are manifest when people start to contend for their share of the national cake. It is easy to dismiss such as tenuous and far-fetched but with the global movement of violence that amongst other things, has the underlying tones of inequity, dismissing such stances is foolhardy. So as a country, we must put our act together. But where do we start? Here are a few proposals relating to public expenditure.
For our leaders both incumbent and aspiring, there should be no more secret budgets and budget proposals. It should not be heard of that a state or local government in Nigeria would not allow its people access to the state’s expenditure plans. Budget proposals should be publicly accessible for people to scrutinize and send in their comments. Let us determine in clear terms, the standard of every public service we want to see across Nigeria. What quality of roads do we want? What are the essentials that every Primary Health Care Centre must have? These need to take into consideration costs of maintenance; simple, efficient and neat is recommended. When we have these in very clear, specific terms, let us carry out a market survey of each divisible component of these public contracts, and based on the identified standards, come up with pricing estimates for each of these components. Thereafter, let us make this information available and publicly accessible; ensuring that there is a responsibility to have such information updated as often as is required. Let us draw up a publicly accessible prioritization list for public infrastructure and services. These would certainly include the health and education sector with security and disability access cutting across each of these sectors. We should also develop service charters that clearly spell out acceptable standards for public services to be delivered.
This could be a starting point for restoring dignity to the lives of every Nigerian. As Nigerians, we can start to teach the world about equitable living standards for all and it could very well start from insisting on Open Contracting as our national policy and practise.
Seember Nyager writes from Abuja. Her organization, PPDC, mobilizes procurement monitors and they are a part of the Omidyar/BudgIT-supported project, #GoingLocal. Follow the activities of procurement monitors on twitter @ppmonitorNG