A problem of perceptions
Five years ago, the Buenos Aires city council was “a dirty word,” says Juan Alemany, its current head of procurement. The council had become synonymous with unbridled corruption, and much of its $120 million operating budget was known to end up in the hands of phantom employees and politically favored contractors. In 1996, when the city became fully autonomous and began electing its own mayor, the council was abolished and replaced by a new city legislature amid public demands for a vigorous housecleaning.
Under Mayor Fernando de la Rua (subsequently elected president of Argentina), the legislature set out “to erase that negative image in the collective memory of our constituents,” says Alemany. One of the many measures was the adoption of Control Activo, a software system to track all procurements.
You tell us how
“We wanted our work in this area to have credibility,” says Alemany, “so instead of doing it all in-house we went to the Transparency Forum.” This coalition of Argentine anti-corruption and consumer rights groups has been providing technical advice to the government on how to publish procurement information on the Internet in a way that is useful both to businesses and taxpayers. One of the groups, Transparencia en la Administración de los Estados, designed Control Activo, the software interface shown here. Control Activo automatically extracts data from the legislature’s procurement database and posts it on the World Wide Web, where it can be viewed without restrictions.
Get it for free
The Control Activo web interface is being distributed at no cost to government entities in Spanish-speaking countries. Fernando Tocchettón, an attorney who helped develop the software, says many government agencies have neither the time nor the money to design their own reporting interface from scratch. “This software can be easily adapted to work with all the main commercial database programs so that procurement data is ‘uploaded’ to the Web automatically,” says Tocchettón.
Who’s the most transparent?
The Buenos Aires city legislature is only one public institution in Argentina that is attempting to improve perceptions of how it spends public money. According to Tocchettón, several provincial and municipal governments are also preparing to install Control Activo on their websites, and the federal government’s tax and customs service (known for the Spanish acronym AFIP) will soon use it to show it spends an annual procurement budget of around $400 million.
No place to hide
When the legislature launched Control Activo last year, posting procurement opportunities was voluntary. Anticipating criticisms that some contracts would stay off the site, the legislature’s president issued a decree last April that made such postings an obligation. The new, leaner legislature has a smaller procurement budget than its predecessor (around $8 million per year, out of a total operations budget of $56 million). But according to Alemany, the number of suppliers bidding on the legislature’s procurements has more than doubled since the Control Activo site went up. For an example of the benefits of greater visibility and competition, Alemany mentions the cost of the legislature’s Internet access service. “Two and a half years ago we had three bidders for this contract, and the winner came in at $6,000 per month. We just finished a new competition for the same service where we had 15 bidders. Now, we’re paying $4,000 a month for four times the bandwidth we had before.”
By clicking on the “Office Furniture” option within the “Previous Purchases” section of the site, a taxpayer can verify that on Dec. 11, 1999, the legislature bought 40 office chairs, at $82,35 pesos each, from D. Groisman y Cia. S.C.A., a company located at 1448 Sarmiento Street in the capital district of Buenos Aires. In the past, it was almost impossible for ordinary citizens to get this kind of information. “Every procurement was something of a mystery in those days,” admits Alemany. Control Activo also offers notices of upcoming procurements, a list of 1,700 suppliers who have registered on the site, online registration forms for new suppliers, user guides, and e-mail addresses for Alemany and two other officials (there are no telephone numbers, however). Future versions will let users track the status of government contract payments, which according to Alemany are made within 20 business days after invoice receipt.