Public procurement reform: assessing interventions aimed at improving transparency

This Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) asks: what is the effectiveness of different interventions that aim to improve the transparency of public procurement? It also asks:

  • What is the impact of improved procurement on accountability, anti-corruption and service delivery?
  • Is it possible to produce key success criteria?

An evidence base consisting of 48 studies, of high (11), medium (30) and low (7) quality, was used for the analysis. The geographic scope of the studies included the Middle East and North Africa (3), South Asia (27), Sub-Saharan Africa (16) and developing countries in general (2). The studies in the evidence base show why countries change their public procurement functions, which may be a result of external pressure and/or stem from governments’ own initiatives. External pressure may come from developments in international standards, governments’ international commitments (including commitments to donors), and from local firms’ and citizens’ demands for and expectations of better quality service.

A government’s desire to solve problems related to existing public procurement functions is the main reason for starting a procurement reform. The studies reveal three main problems that governments want to solve: 1) lack of procurement capacity and knowledge; 2) lack of procurement plans and procedures; and 3) malpractice and corruption.

The 48 studies included in this review rarely use the terms accountability, anti-corruption and service delivery that are listed in the first sub-question. It is also important to note that none of the studies claims to have hard evidence for the direct (positive) effects of different types of interventions. There are three underlying reasons for this: 1) no comparable data are available from before and after interventions; 2) an intervention is usually part of a bigger set of interventions or a large reform package, and as a consequence it seems impossible to measure which specific intervention has had which effect; and 3) various constructs, such as transparency and compliance, related to the performance of the public procurement sector are very hard to measure and/or make quantitative.

However, it is possible to identify five areas where the evidence implies positive results of public procurement interventions: procurement courses developed,  improved public-private relationships, better compliance with rules and regulations, increased transparency and fairness and reduced costs.

These positive results need to be viewed in the context of barriers to effective interventions, post-reform challenges and institutional conditions. The studies included in the evidence base of this REA demonstrate six barriers to effective reform. Shortage of staff and lack of capability of procurement (and procurement-related) staff are the most commonly experienced barriers. Resistance to change and a low sense of urgency combined with little local support are also barriers that emerge in the evidence. Other barriers identified are the complexity of the reform itself, the need for additional, non-procurement reforms to sustain procurement interventions and a lack of readiness of the private sector.

Challenges that may arise in the post-reform period are most likely to be related to lack of preparation and monitoring of the implementation of the reform measures.

Two institutional conditions described in the studies as being supportive of reform are the provision of appropriate rewards for procurement staff (including an appropriate financial reward system and a career path) and implementation of a procurement code of conduct or code of ethics.

The evidence base consists of studies with mainly qualitative data. The studies do not provide enough insight to assess the effect size (effectiveness) of public procurement interventions. The research question that is answered in this report is, thus, what are the effects of different interventions that aim to improve the transparency of public procurement?

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Suggested citation

Telgen, J., van der Krift, J. & Wake, A. (2016). Public procurement reform: Assessing interventions aimed at improving transparency. London: DFID.