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Does India need a public procurement law?

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by Shubho Roy and Diya Uday.

One of the proposed solutions to India’s public procurement problems is new legislation to govern how the government buys goods and services from the private sector. Will a law help India? We connect two data sources to test this idea. Instead of a new law, monitoring public procurement, identifying failures, and then building state capacity may be a better solution. Legislation may not be the silver bullet for our problems.

In India, legislation is often viewed as a panacea when faced with policy problems. Whether it is bankruptcy, privacy, warehousing, or medical testing in private laboratories; the government is quick to propose a new law to solve problems. The same approach has been attempted to address the issues of public procurement. In 2012, the government introduced the Public Procurement Bill with the stated reason as:

“Major countries of the world have well codified legal provisions governing public procurement.” (Statement of Objects and Reasons).

An international organisation also prescribed this solution for India. In 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recommended that India should enact the Public Procurement Bill. According to the UN agency, the bill would improve public procurement and reduce corruption. The bill lapsed, and the government changed. However, the idea that a law is needed persists. The present government had plans for introducing similar legislation. In the 2015-16 budget speech, the finance minister stated:

“Malfeasance in public procurement can perhaps be contained by having a procurement law and an institutional structure consistent with the UNCITRAL model. I believe Parliament needs to take a view soon on whether we need a procurement law, and if so, what shape it should take.” (Paragraph 72)

The present government is yet to introduce a bill.

It seems intuitive that a better law should improve public procurement. More transparent systems that make procurement information widely accessible and encourage more firms to participate, deter kickbacks and other forms of fraud and corruption (Ware et al.). Countries with legal provisions which discourage governments from closing bids to select vendors or establish an independent dispute resolution mechanism seem to have less bribery of public officials (Knack et al.). However, better laws may not necessarily result in better outcomes (Sukhtankar and Vaishnav and Bosio et al.). In this article, we look at the correlation between the state of the procurement law in a country and the outcomes from public procurement.

Parliamentary laws and corruption outcomes

The first step towards measuring the outcome is to agree on metrics of the quality of public procurement. The quality of a procurement law/system may be determined by multiple variables such as the conservation of public resources, purchase of better products, timely payment to vendors and integrity. However, we do not have data to measure these. We suggest an interesting proxy that we do observe: corruption perception. The predominant form of corruption, in most countries, is corruption in public procurement. Therefore, one of the primary objectives of making a public procurement law is to reduce corruption. We hypothesise:

If adopting a law improves public procurement, we should see lower corruption in those countries.

To examine this evidence, we look at two databases: Benchmarking Public Procurement and, Corruption Perception Index.

  1. World Bank’s 2017 Benchmarking Public Procurement Database(BPP). This is a comparative evaluation of the legal systems governing public procurement in 180 countries (World Bank BPP, 2017). Experts analyse the laws governing public procurement on eight criteria. The criteria start from the preparation before a tender is published and extend to dispute resolution and complaint management systems. Economies with more extensive legal frameworks score higher on the BPP than countries with less comprehensive legal frameworks for public procurement. In this sense, the BPP measures the extent to which a country has accepted and implemented the idea that a better law for public procurement is desirable.
  2. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Transparency International scores jurisdictions based on the perception of corruption in a country’s public sector. It is based on opinion polls and surveys across countries. Low scores mean higher corruption and higher scores imply high government integrity.

We look at the correlation between the World Bank’s BPP score and the Corruption Perception Index. We collected BPP data for 2017 and the CPI data for 2019 (latest years). We narrowed down the countries present in both databases, which yields information about 163 of 180 countries (91.12% of the datasets).

Findings

As Figure 1 shows, We find no correlation between the BPP scores and the CPI scores of countries. It is particularly interesting to look at the countries where the two run in different directions. Italy and Kazakhstan have very similar BPP Scores (79.33 and 79.50) but very different CPI Scores (34 and 53). China has a much higher BPP score than Hong Kong (74.66 against 48.66), but in CPI scores, China does significantly worse than Hong Kong (41 and 76). India (61.50), Australia (60.83), and Singapore (60.50) have very similar BPP Scores, but very different CPI scores (41, 77, and 85, respectively). Russia is 14 points ahead of the United Kingdom in the BPP but significantly behind on the CPI by 49 points.

Figure 1:Quality of Law and Corruption

Similarly, as Table 1 shows, the Bahamas, Hong Kong and Barbados rank quite high on the CPI (little corruption) but do quite poorly on BPP ranks. On the other hand, Kazakhstan, Congo and Yemen have high corruption (low CPI score) but score higher on the BPP.

Table 1: Comparing Rankings
Country

CPI score

BPP score

CPI Rank

BPP Rank

Barbados

62

40.20

30

157

Hong Kong

76

48.66

16

141

Bahamas

64

44.66

29

151

Kazakhstan

34

79.50

104

2

Congo

18

64.33

155

43

Yemen

15

64.66

162

41

This evidence is consistent with the arguments by Sukhtankar and Vaishnav and Bosio et al. that better laws do not correlate with better outcomes in public procurement.

What might be going on?

Why is there no correlation between corruption and quality of public procurement laws? Two reasons may explain our observations: isomorphic mimicry or imperfect measurement.

Isomorphic mimicry: ‘Isomorphic mimicry’ is the ability of organisations to sustain legitimacy through the imitation of the forms of modern institutions, but without functionality (Andrews et al.). Countries may adopt laws and institutions which are considered global best practices. However, the laws are not enforced, and the institutions are ineffective. One of the reasons for the observed results could be that countries are adopting law intending to score high on an international indicator without the requisite state capacity or active institutions to implement such a law. While this creates the facade of a sound legal system, the on-ground reality is quite different. International aid agencies sometimes require that a country have a sound legal system for public procurement, where superficial measures such as passing a law are considered sufficient. A government trying to attract international donors might pass `modern’ legislation to showcase or appeal to donors, foreign academics, journalists or NGOs. However, the government may have no intention or capacity to implement the law.

Imperfections in the BPP: The BPP as a measure appears to have a sensitivity problem. The OECD has overarching public procurement guidelines with which all members have to comply. We should, therefore, see OECD countries cluster towards the higher end of the CPI and BPP scores. While this holds for CPI scores, it does not, for BPP. BPP scores of OECD show much more variance than their CPI scores. The fact that OECD countries have adopted a common framework on public procurement appears to be not captured by the BPP measurement system.

The BPP may fail in measuring the quality of procurement laws in a country because of invisible infrastructure. Invisible infrastructure is the superset of general laws, institutions and accountability arrangements in the country which are crucial for determining the success of specific policy intervention (Kelkar and Shah). A common law country like the UK may have binding precedents setting transparency and accountability standards but may not have legislation. Constitutional provisions governing equality before the law or requiring due process apply to government procurement. Freedom of information laws may bring about transparency generally and may apply to procurements. Government’s may have general laws which require government agencies to appoint an ombudsman or inspector general. Such offices may take active steps to reduce corruption and settle procurement disputes. However, such rules are not captured in a measurement system like the BPP as it is limited to government procurement legislation (Bosio et al.) The elements of invisible infrastructure may suffice, in itself, to generate high-quality procurement absent a law, and invisible infrastructure may matter in shaping the consequences of any procurement law. In either event, by focusing on the procurement law we tend to not notice the binding constraint, the invisible infrastructure.

Looking ahead

Before making laws, we need to identify the causes of the poor performance of public procurement in India. We have a history of failing in implementation and monitoring in India. Both require robust, invisible infrastructure which is missing. The first step is to build the load-bearing capacity of the procurement system. Pritchett et al. point out that premature load-bearing arising from unrealistic expectations about the level and rate of improvement of the ability of a state lead to stresses and demands on systems that cause capability to weaken if not collapse.

Two websites which aggregate procurement across government departments may provide clues on how to improve state capacity. The Government E-Marketplace (GEM) and the Central Procurement Portal (CPPP), operated by the central government, aggregate and standardise procurement notices across various government bodies. These websites aid the procurement process in many ways. Tenders are made public on a common portal instead of being scattered across multiple publication sources. This increases competition as bidders are less likely to miss a tender because they do not buy a specific newspaper. The method of tender publications is standardised, and this helps bidders apply for tenders with lesser effort. Moving away from paper-based systems reduces the chance of bids getting lost.

The more significant benefit from these websites is that they allow the government to measure/monitor the quality of the procurement process (outcome measurement) across multiple variables. This is better than measuring the quality of some legislation (input measurement) of BPP. The CPPP website publishes 16 performance indicators derived from the transactions carried out on the site. For instance, in 2019-20, 23% of the open tenders were not awarded within the bid-validity period. i.e. the buyer did not finalise the transaction in time. Sadly, most of the performance indicators tracked by the CPPP website, since 2016, show no discernable trends that procurement performance is improving.

Other jurisdictions have implemented interventions, similar to the performance indicators in the CPP website, to improve public procurement system. The Government Accountability Office of the U.S. publishes performance reports on government procurement (which does worse than Kazakhstan on the BPP Score). Instead of legislating, India may benefit from looking at the performance indicators on the BPPP website and working on improving them every year.

We should not be lured by silver bullets, such as enacting legislation. While legislation has a role to play in governance, the evidence indicates that it is not a panacea for our problems. Some countries with good outcomes do not necessarily have an extensive legal framework for public procurement. Some nations with comprehensive laws continue to demonstrate poor results. The pathway to a better procurement system perhaps lies in detailed research that integrates public administration, law and public economics.

References

Erica Bosio, Simeon Djankov, Edward L. Glaeser, Andrei Shleifer, Public Procurement in Law and Practice. National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2020

Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation, CID Working Paper No. 239 June 2012.

OECD, OECD Foreign Bribery Report: An Analysis of the Crime of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials, OECD Publishing, 2014

Sandip Sukhtankar, Milan Vaishnav, Corruption in India: Bridging Research Evidence and Policy Options, India Policy Forum 2014-15: Volume 11, April 2015

Stephen Knack, Nataliya Biletska, Kanishka Kacker, Deterring Kickbacks and Encouraging Entry in Public Procurement Markets, Development Research Group, World Bank, May 2017

Tina Søreide, Corruption in public procurement Causes, consequences and cures, Chr. Michelsen Institute of Development Studies and Human Rights, 2002

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, India: Probity in Public Procurement, 2013

Vijay Kelkar, Ajay Shah, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy, 2019

Ware, Glenn T., Shaun Moss, J. Edgardo Campos, and Gregory P. Noone, Corruption in Public Procurement: A Perennial Challenge in The Many Faces of Corruption Tracking Vulnerabilities at the Sector Level – Handbook of Global Research and Practice in Corruption, Washington, DC, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2007

World Bank, Benchmarking Public Procurement – Assessing Public Procurement Regulatory Systems in 180 Economies, World Bank Group, 2017

Shubho Roy is a researcher at the University of Chicago. Diya Uday is a senior researcher at the Finance Research Group, Mumbai and visiting faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.


Source: https://blog.theleapjournal.org/2020/08/does-india-need-public-procurement-law.html


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