By Adelle Chua
“Open contracting? Why, are we even closed?”
Frei Sangil, president and CEO of Albay province-based startup Layertech, says this defensive reaction was common among local government employees and frontliners of Legazpi City during their initial conversations on the topic.
“People were hesitant when they hear the word ‘procurement.’ It was a topic that was not very familiar to them, and it also carried some…connotations,” she says.
Legazpi City is widely perceived as progressive and open to innovation and technology compared to others in the country. It has won many awards and served as an example to other LGUs in adapting modern tools for better governance.
But there is always room for improvement.
Initial conversations with some of the city’s suppliers, contractors and private sector representatives in fact revealed perceptions of lack of transparency, unfair procurement practices, corrupt employees and officials’ intervention with processes.
Soon enough, the gap became obvious: There was no easily accessible repository of procurement data. Anybody who was interested to know about procurement history or trends in the city has nowhere to go.
Fortunately, LayerTech – which, as Hivos’ partner in the open contracting project, broached the idea to the local executives – has had a previous working relationship with the city. “They knew our track record and in fact our partnership had won some awards for them,” Sangil says. “That really helped in getting the mayor’s office to say yes to this project.”
The mayor was, at the outset, enthusiastic about the idea of establishing an OCDS (The Open Contracting Data Standard) portal that users can refer to in visualizing procurement trends in the city. This would do much in boosting Legazpi’s image as a transparent, progressive, and digital city.
For its part, LayerTech lent its expertise in building and designing the open contracting portal. It tested what the local government, specifically the Bids and Awards Committee, needed to navigate the portal and use the information contained therein. For the greater public, analytics and data sets would made available, and Layertech hopes it would generate enough interest among the business community — even the smaller companies who do not participate in public biddings just because they do not know anything about them.
According to LayerTech, there are two sets of stakeholders in the project: The data publishers, which refer to the LGU and its partner in the academe, and the portal users, composed of the Albay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, local contractors, the local media, and students/ researchers of the Bicol University.
Realities on the ground
One of the first things the LayerTech team learned was that top-level interest and buy-in do not guarantee smooth implementation.
“We had to talk to the frontliners,” Sangil says. “It was difficult due to poor filing system and the lack of computer and internet infrastructure.”
Initial misgivings on the phrases “open contracting” and “procurement” also proved difficult to overcome. “The meaning was not clear. The people were worried it had implications on the way they did their jobs,” Sangil says. They were afraid that even their attendance as observers would involve them in malicious procurement practices.
Establishing rapport and assuaging these valid fears did not come overnight – indeed, the process took several months.
“We worked hard to explain the concept to them, to show them examples. Only then did they understand that this was not about finding faults but actually about improving the way they served the public.”
The team, having their expertise in technology, had to grapple with their lack of in-house knowledge of the procurement process. And, being in their 20s — the youngest being 25 years old – they sometimes had the impression that people felt they were too young to really know what they were doing.
The initial coordination meeting held in April 2018 provided sound background on the state of procurement in the Philippines and generated great interest among various stakeholders.
The LayerTech team cited as invaluable Hivos’ assistance in lending its – or its contacts’ – expertise in open contracting and freedom of information. There were various capacity building sessions conducted for different stakeholders, taking into consideration their own capacities, needs and objectives. Hivos enabled the space for these different stakeholders to come together and see where they can complement and assist each other.
Through user design mapping, LayerTech consulted with the LGU, the academe, business and CSOs to find out what specific information they wanted to see in the portal. And then, in designing the portal, LayerTech asked the would-be users what they wanted in an interface.
“We call it agile methodology,” Sangil says. “We focus on working with users. We asked them to identify a web site they are very comfortable using and say what they like best about that site. How can the portal be intuitive?”
According to Sangil, the approach is not “This is our expertise. This is our solution.” Instead, they asked the users what their level of tech facility is and what could make them feel comfortable using a site.
It helped that all the team members of LayerTech were residents of Legazpi City and were familiar with the culture and dynamics within and among the various stakeholder groups.
Sangil says they initially had a problem with LGU frontliners who were hesitant to provide them with procurement documents. They invoked data privacy and were concerned they might get into trouble for releasing documents.
But Hivos helped LayerTech overcome this hurdle by providing representatives of the GPPB, for instance, who reassured them that releasing the documents is allowed, even encouraged, and that this would help them perform their jobs better.
“Within weeks we were able to get almost all the documents we needed, except those with storage problems,” Sangil says.
What the team learned was that they had to show they were going out of their way to make the employees see that they were truly on their side. “It’s the extra effort to solve problems even outside of planned activities that really showed we were trying to help them,” she says.
In this regard, the team also learned that while technology can make tasks easier and people more efficient, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when building relationships. During the FOI Dialogues, for instance, the target stakeholders understood for the first time, in full, how the initiative will help them carry out their work more easily.
One-on-one meetings were still more effective because then the stakeholders felt free and uninhibited to raise their concerns and questions.
Focus group discussions and online collaboration were great tools, of course, but these still needed to be supplemented by individual meetings to let the stakeholders feel as though they had the undivided attention of the team. This level of confidence could not be achieved after just one or two sessions.
The team also validated, once again, that projects had a greater chance of success when different people with different fields of expertise come together. While LayerTech for instance had the expertise in IT, there are other players that provided theirs in advocacy, or in procurement, or in processes. The linkages that were established in the project will not doubt extend to other initiatives in the future.
Finally, LayerTech was mindful that the portal it was building is not confined to the present. “We want to institutionalize it. This is our contribution, to ensure sustainability,” Sangil says. Thus, the web forms and the designs should always be helpful to the BAC secretariat.
At present, the Legazpi City government is still conducting hearings for the ordinance on Freedom of Information, which would institutionalize FOI and would enable citizens to request information from the LGU. The ordinance draft includes specific provisions on open contracting. The portal will be launched to the public this month.
Sangil and her team hope that with the operationalization of the portal and the publication of the analytics, the procurement process would generate more interest among businesses who had not normally participated in biddings, not for any other reason but for lack of awareness of how these things are conducted.
Previously, in the private sector, there was no dedicated support group to address this gap – businesses were on their own.
“It’s always the same companies who bid for projects with the LGU,” Sangil says. “These are the ones already familiar with the process and the trends. Our conversations with SMEs revealed that they did not want to participate because they were young and did not know how.”
With a more tech efficient and transparent bidding process, more SMEs, even tech startups, will be encouraged to participate.
Tech for good
Sangil, at age 27, says she grew up comfortable talking to different people because her father was a government worker and her mother was active in the workers’ union. But aside from the confidence, she also developed, at an early age, a sense that tools should be used for a greater good.
And indeed LayerTech, “our specialty and passion are data: Developing tools and platforms, promoting data-driven governance and introducing the power of data science to people.”
That sweet spot between knowledge and passion came into play for this Hivos project.
“There is no law that says you should use Facebook, but people use it anyway. We want people to feel the same about this open contracting portal.”