If a system such as Budeshi is adopted across the Nigerian public service, where it becomes difficult to inflate prices because it could be easily discovered by anyone, and where various public services being executed can be linked to contractors, there is then a greater incentive for every single contractor, however chosen, to prove his/her competence in relation to other contractors.
A few months ago, we commenced a project called Budeshi which means “open it” in Hausa language. Its overarching framework presumes that something is closed and needs to be opened up. From the procurement monitor’s perspective, Budeshi aims to ensure that the processes through which public services are delivered are opened up to public scrutiny. Budeshi also requires that data across the budget and procurement processes are structured enough to enable various stages to be linked to each other and, eventually, to public services. The entire project is really an advocacy to the Nigerian government to have an “open contracting” system adopted, using data standards. But the question is: does Nigeria really stand to gain anything from this and if yes, what exactly should we expect from such a system?
At the federal level, Nigeria as a country has one of the most detailed budgets in Africa. It is broken down into line items for each ministry. For example, you can see in detail, sums that have been budgeted for each primary health care centre to be built across the country. Further, details of contracts awarded within a certain threshold in Nigeria are accessible through the Bureau of Public Procurement’s website and for projects with lower monetary thresholds, a public institution would provide such details if requested for under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Procurement monitors have used FOI requests to get contracting details for the primary health care centres which appear in the budget. But this exposes a bigger problem; it is the fact that even with these various datasets, linking them together is a challenge. This in turn affects all attempts to verify that these contracts have delivered value for the resources expended. This is one of the reasons why we need the open contracting data standards (OCDS) in Nigeria.
The truth is that regardless of your skill, if the datasets for a certain public service is presented differently at each stage, it would be near impossible to use that contracting data to verify the performance of public services. And that is a challenge that the OCDS seeks to address. For example, several contracts to build Al-Majiri schools were awarded for Borno State. However, without clear specifications that include specific locations for each project provided in both the budget and procurement data, it becomes difficult to know what data represents a certain contract, and what specifications each identifiable project ought to have. It then becomes difficult to verify the performance of each contract since it is unclear what specifications apply to each contract. As a country, therefore, it is crucial that each public contracting process in Nigeria, at every stage, is uniquely identifiable in a way that enables performance verification of the public infrastructure or service for which resources have been provided. This would go a long way in preventing the duplication of contracts and would enable both public institutions and interested citizens accurately verify the performance of each public service or infrastructure delivered based on clear specifications for that contract and the value of the contract.
In addition, adopting the OCDS across the public sector in Nigeria could significantly complement asset recovery efforts. In the last nine months, a lot of resources have been spent on recovering allegedly stolen or misappropriated assets from previous administrations. A mechanism for asset recovery direly needs to be complemented by a system where such infractions are prevented from happening. This would be best achieved where the process for expending government resources is open and comprehensible. Since the OCDS is premised on linking data sets across the entire process, through an automated system, several datasets can be visualised in a variety of ways.
With a few available datasets from the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), Budeshi currently demonstrates that through interactive visuals, linked procurement and budget data can enable the discovery of red flags across the contracting process.
By a selection of datasets and a choice of visuals, different stakeholders can make various comparisons, be it of budgeted and contracted amounts across various locations, contractors to whom contracts have been awarded for various projects, specifications for different projects, etc. This therefore becomes an incentive for various stakeholders involved in various stages leading to public service delivery, to carry out their due diligence. It would be questionable for instance, to see two primary health care centres, both denoted as dispensaries of the same capacity, having a huge variance in pricing. Thus, Budeshi demonstrates that the OCDS could also enable competence to form a stronger basis for selecting contractors.
If a system such as Budeshi is adopted across the Nigerian public service, where it becomes difficult to inflate prices because it could be easily discovered by anyone, and where various public services being executed can be linked to contractors, there is then a greater incentive for every single contractor, however chosen, to prove his/her competence in relation to other contractors. There is the potential to see the standards of public projects rise, since anyone interested may be able to verify how well a contractor has delivered a project. Thus, through such a system, we professionalise the process through which contracts are awarded.
All of this is what Budeshi seeks to demonstrate; to ensure that we can turn budget and procurement data into a tool for verifying the performance of public services, a tool for improving efficient eventual public service delivery and a tool for preventing infractions in the process leading to public service delivery. However, deploying a system such as Budeshi requires a conscious effort of government to ensure that data across every stage in the contracting process is accessible based on agreed standards. A great deal of effort has gone into developing the OCDS and Nigeria stands to gain significantly from adopting these standards.
Seember Nyager is an Open Government fellow with Code for Africa/Open Knowledge seeking for the adoption of open contracting data standards in Nigeria.
Budeshi is an initiative of the Public and Private Development Centre in collaboration with Pan-Atlantic University and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism.
A revised version of this article was first published on the Code For Africa Medium