The State of Public Procurement in South Africa is Not Transparent
Abigail Kemper
April 6, 2021
The ability to “follow the money” is only possible if transactions are recorded and published, (or if the data is leaked). In partnership with Corruption Watch, we at Open Cities Lab, are interested in our government’s process for recording and publishing all tenders in every stage of the procurement process. The Open Contracting Data Standards (OCDS) provide a really comprehensive way of recording and analysing every stage from planning and advertising tenders to bids awarded and extensions or cancellations of contracts.

We recently conducted research into the state of transparency of health procurement data in South Africa. Of the twelve provincial and national procurement portals we reviewed, we selected three portals: eTenders Publication Portal; North West Department of Health Website; Gauteng Provincial Government Tender Information Portal. We scraped the available procurement data from each of these portals within a 9 month period in 2019/2020. Using the OCDS framework we developed a data catalogue for each portal and were able to measure specific indicators where there was enough data. For more information download the full report and policy brief.

The main challenge is that not all tender information is consistently uploaded to the tender portals we reviewed. On eTenders, only the tender description, number and end date is being consistently completed at the advert stage and only the tender description, number and supplier name is being consistently completed at the award stage. National Treasury Instruction 1 of 2015/2016 (instruction 4) dictates that certain basic award information must be published on eTenders for national and provincial department procurement within 7 days of the bid being awarded. This includes: (a) Contract description and bid number; (b) Names of the successful bidder(s) and preference points claimed; © Contract price(s), if possible; (d) Contract period; (e) Names of Directors; and (f) Date of completion/award. 91% of the eTenders sample we reviewed do not comply with these requirements as they did not publish the bid value. 89% did not publish the Bidder points awarded; 45% did not publish the contract award value; and 47% did not publish the contract period end date.

More detailed information can be found in the PDF attachments found on the portals but this data is difficult to scrape or analyse because the documents are typically scanned and uploaded as an individual PDF or as a consolidated set. This points to a largely paper-based system of capturing tender, award and contract information. It’s not possible to tell whether the incomplete and inaccurate data uploaded to eTenders is intentional (a signal of corruption) or due to a lack of capacity and a clumsy paper to digital data ingestion system.

At the online launch of this report, Thandi Bhengu, a data scientist ot OCL said:

“There’s a discussion we need to have about how inclusive we can make the transition from paper-based to digital procurement methods for better monitoring and transparency of procurement processes.”

If basic information was consistently uploaded or captured in an efficient data ingestion system, the public would be empowered to track basic tender and subsequent award information across all stages of the procurement process. We would be able to monitor collusion, fraud, value for money, market competitiveness, process rigging, and more. As it stands the state of public procurement in South Africa is not transparent. This has big implications for the ability of the media and public to “follow the money”.

Acknowledgements: Corruption Watch; Tom Wright (Transparency International), Joanne Parker (OCL Lead Researcher), Thandi Bhengu (OCL Data Scientist), and Ella Alcock (OCL Researcher)

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