TRANSPARENCY isn’t just a word – that has been the message from the new government ever since Prime Minister Iveta Radičová took over. Now her cabinet is trying to prove it and has promised to publish all deals that involve state money. Moreover, such contracts will not become valid until they are posted online, allowing the public to examine the numbers and conditions. Political ethics watchdogs suggest that the new procurement transparency rules might mark the twilight of the dubious deals that were cooked up by ministers and state officials of all types over the past couple of years or more. However, the largest opposition party, Smer – which was in government until June this year – has expressed scepticism about the new rules.
The new regulations are in part intended to prevent officials from agreeing to deals which prove irrevocable even if they turn out to be grossly disadvantageous to taxpayers.
If the public review process reveals any non-standard proceeding involved in a deal that uses state money it will be possible to withdraw from the contract within 10 days.
“The proposal submitted by the government will significantly increase public control over the management of public funds and public property,” said Peter Wilfling, a lawyer with the Via Iuris association, which has been advocating much wider public access to government-related information.
According to Wilfling, the proposal will considerably help prevent corruption and also the uneconomic use of public property.
Prime Minister Radičová said that the new practices should eliminate situations which her government has found at many ministries after it took over: “disadvantageous deals have been concluded with such conditions that it is impossible to withdraw from them.”
The websites of state institutions might soon offer some interesting reading since they will be obliged to publish all contracts, without any financial limitation. “We are introducing the duty that all orders and invoices, regardless of their value, will be published on the website of the given state institution,” Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská said, as quoted by the Sme daily.
However, she added that there are also contracts which involve classified information and these details will be deleted from what is published.
The largest opposition party, Smer, has been sceptical of the initiative. Former interior minister Robert Kaliňák, according to news television TA3, said that the government should first of all start publishing all the privatisation deals and then they can start taking on other obligations. However, his colleague, former finance minister and now Smer MP Ján Počiatek, said that he could see himself voting in favour of the proposal “if there is no nonsense involved”.
Wilfling noted that the draft represents huge progress compared to the past, when the public had to follow a long and demanding path, often through the courts, to achieve publication of contracts.
“Court proceedings to make contracts accessible to the public sometimes lasted up to several years, which made it impossible to make politicians accountable for disadvantageous contracts since the information was no longer timely,” Wilfling said. “If the contracts have to be automatically published state bodies will not have the option to delay the process of disclosure and thus they will make some more effort not to have in the contract any disadvantageous conditions so that they do not immediately become a target of public criticism.”
Yet, Wilfling stressed that it will then be up to the public and also experts to point out shortcomings in the published agreements, which might then result in the state withdrawing from disadvantageous contracts.
The head of ethics watchdog Transparency International Slovakia, Gabriel Šípoš, writing in Sme, said that in order to make this “very good intention of the government to minimise disadvantageous contracts and corruption pressures by transparency work in the best possible way, it is necessary to harmonise the context and form of this publishing”.
He suggests that publishing hundreds of documents daily is a good basis, but the volume of information scattered across the hundreds of websites run by state bodies, regional governments and municipalities might still present an unnecessary barrier. Thus Šípoš suggests that all contracts be published using so-called open standard software, which will allow external programmes to easily identify data and further process them.
He also suggests that to strengthen public access it would be more effective to develop a central registry with an easy option to search data in contracts based on company names, procurers or the subject of each order.
As far as the possibility of circumventing the duty to publish contracts on the basis of confidential commercial information, the proposed law stipulates that if the information pertains to the use of public funds or property the information cannot be withdrawn from the public as confidential, said Wilfling.
Basic provisions of contracts such as the price, contractual conditions, date of payments, the volume of supplied goods, conditions of termination of contracts or other rights and duties of the contractual partners unambiguously pertain to handling public funds, Wilfling added.
“Regarding some of the information included in contracts there might be a discussion about what can be qualified as handling public funds and what is not,” Wilfling told The Slovak Spectator.
Perhaps methodical guidelines could be issued for state bodies on how to identify information pertaining to state funds and property, he added.
“However, from the draft revision it is already clear that it will not be possible to conceal whole contracts, as was happening until now and that these will have to be published as a whole from which only certain information, which meet the criteria of being classified as commercial secrets or which do not pertain to the use of public funds, can be withdrawn,” said Wilfling. “I consider this to be huge progress.”
At the same time, if contracts are published with considerable parts, for example the purchase price, blacked out, the media or public can warn about this and put pressure on state bodies so that they promptly publish information or withdraw from a contract if it is not possible to judge its advantages, Wilfling concluded.
23. Aug 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová