A rather fancy WC renovation: How a DOZORRO corruption watchdog activist found out the truth about procurements in her town

Civil society in Ukraine is learning how to effectively fight corruption schemes involving public tenders.

In the town of Ukrayinka, the mayor’s office paid nearly double the actual cost to renovate the washrooms (WCs) at City Hall. This scheme by the municipal government was exposed by community activist Olha Nos with the help of DOZORRO’s online procurement monitoring platform.

Ukrayinka has a population of just over 15,000 and is located 38 km south of Kyiv. While conducting her regular monitoring of municipal procurements on DOZORRO, Olha discovered that in February 2018, Ukrayinka officials signed a contract worth nearly UAH 200,000 or $7,500 for washroom renovations at City Hall. As stipulated in the contract which is publicly accessible through DOZORRO, LLC “VLAN-Service” was supposed to cover the walls of the washrooms in tiles and decorative plaster. However, when Olha visited the WCs after the renovations, she saw that there was no decorative plasterwork anywhere. She decided to turn to the local prosecutor’s office to further investigate the issue.

After reviewing the facts and documents that Olha submitted, the local prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case on the matter. The court called for an expert to review of the nature of the works completed and their estimated monetary value. The expert established that the real value of the actual works was approximately 50% less than what City Hall had paid. The contractor was forced to return UAH 84,000 or US $3,200 to the municipal budget.

The reform mayor who wasn’t

Prior to the launch of DOZORRO in 2016, the mayor of Ukrayinka had put a lot of effort into establishing himself as a young reformer in favor of transparency and accountability in municipal government. However, after DOZORRO was launched, local activists took a closer look at documents on public procurement in which the mayor’s office had been involved and discovered an impressive list of suspect violations. For instance, it was found that the mayor was transferring UAH 16-20,000 ($600-750) to his driver every month to repair three ostensibly official vehicles. However, it was difficult to believe that all three new cars were having problems on a monthly basis requiring repairs worth $200 – 250 per car (the average market spend is no more than $50). Moreover, it turned out that these cars weren’t even registered as communal property, so taxpayers from Ukrayinka were paying for repair work on someone else’s vehicles.

When Prozorro, Ukraine’s electronic system for public procurements, and DOZORRO were set up, “everything began to be visible,” explains Olha. “…It turned out that things weren’t quite like our local officials wanted us to think. We saw all these sole entrepreneurs (private individuals) and all the contracts. We saw that companies owned by city councilors were being subcontracted Lord knows how. We saw that cement companies were somehow being given contracts to install windows.”

Based on documents which are now routinely made available online thanks to the public policy on open data, community activists turned to law enforcement agencies. Criminal cases were launched, involving procurement for kindergartens and title manipulation of public land plots, and the mayor was forced to resign in September 2017.

DOZORRO community finds violations in nearly 12,000 public procurements

The Ukrayinka case was just one of thousands of examples of the DOZORRO platform’s effectiveness as an instrument for exposing suspicious procurement. Over 2018, organizations that are part of the DOZORRO network found violations in nearly 12,000 government tenders.

Using the online DOZORRO platform, activists were able to expose attempts by government agencies to avoid open bidding, publish discriminatory tender requirements, select winners on dubious grounds, fail to publish the entire scope of information at the reporting stage, collude with bidders and more. The goal of these violations is always the same: to contract the desired supplier and overpay for goods or services in order to receive ‘kickbacks.’

Since its launch in November 2016, the DOZORRO community has had a positive impact on more than 2,000 tenders. Public buyers are listening to the community’s recommendations and fixing mistakes in bidding documents or removing discriminatory requirements. For example, the State Auditing Service of Ukraine has forced buyers to withdraw from dubious procurement processes and establish fair procedures for selecting winning bids. Additionally, a supplier who is found to have participated corruption schemes may find itself on the Anti-Monopoly Committee of Ukraine (AMCU)’s blacklist[1] and banned from bidding in public tenders for three years. When reviewing commercial offers, a contracting authority has the right to reject a bidder’s offer if they are found on the blacklist.

Reforms are made possible with donor support

Analyzing a trove of documents on state procurements and respond professionally to suspicious contracts requires network of 25 NGOs and more than 1,000 volunteers across Ukraine who are committed to delving deeply into the tangled ecosystem of public procurements. This task requires enormous amounts of time, often resulting in long working hours. This work would also not be possible without international support.

Olha Nos from Trypilskyi Krai, a local community organization which is a member of the DOZORRO watchdog network, is just one these activists whose successful efforts are being supported by grants from foreign donors:

“I think that all the reforms going on in our country are moving forward thanks, in part, to the push coming from foreign donors,” Olha says. “On one hand, they are putting pressure on our country’s leaders through their embassies. On the other, they are spurring ordinary people to some kind of action, by training and raising the skill levels of our activists. I think what they are doing is critically important.”

[1] As of the end of June 2019, there are nearly 1,000 suppliers on the AMCU’s blacklist.