There’s always room for improvement: Open contracting in the province of South Cotabato

By Adelle Chua

 

John Magbanua has been working at the Provincial Government of South Cotabato (in Mindanao, Southern Philippines) for 25 years, and with the Bids and Awards Committee for 19 of those 25 years. He thought he had seen it all.

He had observed the changes brought about by the passage of Republic Act 9184 or the Government Procurement Reform Act which was passed in 2003. Because of this law, the business community became more interested in bidding for government projects and obtaining access to procurement documents posted, first on bulletin boards in conspicuous places, the website of the provincial government, and eventually on the website of the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS).

John Magbanua has seen many developments in procurement since he started working with the Provincial Government of South Cotabato two decades ago

He also believed that the provincial government already enjoyed a good relationship with the business community; in fact, Magbanua said, the private sector had some participation in the different local special bodies. The public and private sectors recognized that the other was a great help to their own objectives and progress.

“It helped that the private sector felt that there was an effort to include them in the activities of the LGU, and that they were not left out.”

So in 2018 when the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines introduced Open Contracting to the provincial government, conducting meetings with various stakeholder groups, Magbanua doubted whether it was even needed in the first place. “The provincial government was already open and transparent. It strictly complied with RA 9184.” His colleagues at the BAC shared his opinion.

“The provincial government was already open and transparent. It strictly complied with RA 9184.”

ECCP had been working with Hivos Southeast Asia in promoting transparency and accountability, and it had had its own Integrity Circles campaign for many years.

These days, Magbanua is happy to concede his doubts have been unfounded. He has been witnessing, first hand, how Open Contracting has improved procurement processes in the province.

To show its commitment to transparency, the provincial government, under then-Governor Daisy Fuentes, issued Administrative Order 02 in March 2019 providing internal rules and policies to improve the procurement process.

With the help of the School of Data and ECCP, the province was also able to establish its own portal where procurement data in machine-readable formats could be easily accessed by the public. The portal, first made online in June 2019, is undergoing periodic tweaking to be more responsive to the needs of its users.

Through the portal, the private sector is kept abreast of business opportunities.

And in August 2019, the new provincial governor, Reynaldo Tamayo, issued Executive Order 38-A directing the Bids and Awards Committee to exclude private contractors with expired contracts or those with 15% slippage from bidding for contracts of the province and the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Encouraging results

The results were stark and immediate. Following are some comparative figures released by the provincial government:

  • The number of failed bids decreased from 32 in 2018 to just 3 in 2019.
  • The number of completed infrastructure projects increased from 120 in 2018 to 128 in 2019.
  • There were more new bidders, from 173 in 2018 to 202 in 2019.
  • And since the new portal was established in 2019, information on 19 projects was made available there.

Qualitatively, according to Magbanua, the BAC secretariat has become more knowledgeable in the technology used to improve access to procurement data. Suppliers and contractors are more eager to bid for projects. The general public – civil society, media, students/researchers and other stakeholders – now enjoy access to various information in all stages of the procurement process from planning to implementation and are now more participative in the process.

Spreading the word

South Cotabato is the first local government unit to have a permanent BAC secretariat under the Office of the Governor. Tamayo, even though he got elected as governor after the Open Contracting commitment was made, immediately got on board the initiative.

“The support of the chief executive is very important,” Magbanua says. Open contracting goals and objectives are so lofty that direction and guidance from the top is key to implementation.

Indeed, the publication of procurement data enables greater transparency and makes possible in-depth analysis of the efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and integrity of all stages of the procurement process.

They are tweaking their processes and learning as they go along. Magbanua now believes there is always room for improvement, especially in the area of good governance. More importantly, one should always share the lessons and successes with others to help their procurement process and the progress of their own LGUs.

 

Last year’s Integrity Week featured a variety of activities involving various stakeholders in the province of South Cotabato