All contracts to go online

THE INTERNET should provide some interesting reading for advocates of transparency, ethics watchdogs and journalists from January 2011. All contracts in Slovakia that involve public funds will be published online: moreover, they will not become valid until they appear on the internet.

THE INTERNET should provide some interesting reading for advocates of transparency, ethics watchdogs and journalists from January 2011. All contracts in Slovakia that involve public funds will be published online: moreover, they will not become valid until they appear on the internet.

Observers describe the revision to the Civil Code, approved by parliament on December 9, as a courageous and revolutionary piece of legislation which will give the public more control over the handling of public funds and will potentially prevent many doubtful contracts involving the state.

Anti-corruption package

All institutions falling under the Freedom of Information Act – i.e. ministries; state offices and their budgetary organisations; public organisations; as well as town councils, village councils and regional governments – will have to adopt the practice of publishing their contracts online.

The legislation is part of the anti-corruption package that the government of Iveta Radičová promised to the public shortly after taking over in July 2010.

“It is breakthrough legislation, for which no other government has had the courage,” Peter Wilfling, a lawyer cooperating with the Via Iuris organisation, told The Slovak Spectator.

“I expect it to prevent the adoption of many doubtful – and, for the state, disadvantageous – contracts; it will reduce corruption and cronyism in awarding state orders; and it will save a great deal of money which could then be used for other useful purposes,” Wilfling added.

The lawyer says that the change will make it possible for citizens to control how politicians manage public property and will make it easier for voters to call them to account.

Yet, unlike the original proposal that the cabinet approved in late August, the final law did not contain a provision which would have allowed public institutions to withdraw from a contract within 10 days of it being published.

The chairman of the parliamentary constitutional committee, Radoslav Procházka of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), proposed that the provision be dropped. He argued that the move would favour equality between contracting parties, the SITA newswire reported.

“It is a fact that the possibility to withdraw from a contract without indicating the reason could have created some legal uncertainty,” Wilfling said, adding that after observing how the law functions in practice the government can do some further fine-tuning.

Contracts produced by ministries, central state administration bodies, public institutions and their budgetary organisations will be published in the Central Register of Contracts, which is a public list of mandatorily published contracts administered by the Government Office. Other institutions will publish contracts on their websites or, if they do not have one, then in the Commercial Bulletin published by the Ministry of Justice, SITA wrote.

Public institutions must publish orders for goods and services within 10 working days of signing a contract; they will also be obliged to publish invoices for goods and services no later than 30 days after they are paid, according to SITA.

According to Wilfling, it is important that contracts are published in an orderly and transparent way so that it is easy to find contracts which are of interest to citizens or journalists.

“We will see how the law functions in practice,” Wilfling said. “Its effectiveness will depend on how much interest the media and the public show in the published contracts and how they hold politicians to account.”

Until now the public has been able to request information only about what it already knew existed, Gabriel Šípoš of Transparency International Slovensko told the Sme daily in an interview. He said the act of publishing contracts is very important for society. He also explained that public procurement is the area that has been affected most by corruption and that state orders have often been won by people with the best contacts.

However, opposition MP Jana Laššáková, who represents the Smer party, called the revision “non-standard”, suggesting that she has not seen similar legislative measures in the surrounding countries, according to Sme.

For Wilfling such arguments carry little weight.

“One has to ask whether Slovakia, considering the conditions that exist here, needs such a law,” Wilfling said. “I am personally convinced that the large scale of corruption and cronyism in awarding state orders and concluding state contracts, and published cases of scandalous and seemingly disadvantageous contracts as a result of which the state has lost huge amounts of money, are strong enough arguments for the legislation.”

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