There has been a lot of resentment and uproar among users of the public procurement in Serbia, but the Public Procurement Office has been improving the system, introducing more transparency in the spending of public funds.
Effective public procurement at all levels is a key to the development of both a resilient democracy and a competitive economy in Serbia. The latest EU report on the country’s progress towards the Union has dubbed the area of public procurement as “moderately advanced”. While the report hailed progress in the field, it noted that the capacity of the country’s Public Procurement Office (PPO) needs to be strengthened further and that the national strategy and action plan for upgrading the public procurement system remain to be updated.
It all started in late 2002 under the late PM Zoran Djindjic, when the first Law on public procurement entered into force and the PPO was established as an independent governmental agency. The aim of the institution was to help the establishment of sound procurement procedures and practices, ensuring that public funds are spent in an efficient and transparent way, thus complementing government’s overall drive in fighting corruption.
Mr. Predrag Jovanovic was elected to head the newly formed institution, given his previous experience in the field with NGOs — European Movement and Transparency Serbia. “I still remember that day when I had a paper on founding the Office in my hands, with no office, no stamp or people with me,” Jovanovic recalls. “It was one man in the decentralised system of 10,000 contracting authorities.” So, he started making a team and developing mechanisms to implement the law from the scratch.
According to Jovanovic, there were two main challenges they have been facing ever since the beginning: the tendency to avoid public tenders and poor administrative capacities of the PPO.
“People were oriented towards either being exempt from the application of the law or to go to a negotiated procedure without public announcement,” say Jovanovic. He is referring to emergency situations, when, under Serbian Public Procurement rules, direct negotiations are allowed. “Many situations have been classified as emergency. But, if you need a new heating system as winter is just around the corner, this cannot be classified as emergency, as we all knew that the winter was coming,” Jovanovic explains.
The Agency found that in 2012, 28 per cent of the total procurement value was contracted in non-competitive, negotiated procedure, while in 2014, this figure dropped to only 5 per cent, which is in line with European standards. In addition to this, open procedure participated with 56 in the total value of procurement in 2012, while in 2014, the share soared to 85 per cent.
In the Office of 23 people at the moment, the lack of capacities to serve the entire country still remains a problem. Jovanovic says that the number of employees should be increased to 36. There are only two telephone lines for consultancy in the area of public procurement for a whole country. Therefore, one of the main goals of the Office now is to assist to cities, regional centers to upgrade their expertise in public procurement which would enable them to assist other municipalities. This would mean to build and strengthen agencies in local municipalities to deal with public procurements on a competent and professional manner. “Even if there are hundreds of us sitting in Belgrade, it is not good to have one advisory body on 10,000 contracting authorities. We need to develop more “centers of excellences” through Serbia,” Jovanovic noted. He expressed his hope that by 2018, Serbia will achieve this goal.
An important step in this direction is the Agency’s continuous professionalisation and licensing of public procurement officials. So far, there are over 2,000 certified public procurement officials working across Serbia. This is an area in which the Office has been supported by the Norwegian embassy through a project, coordinated by UNDP.
Meanwhile, in order to make the entire process more transparent, the Office is proud of its portal of public procurement. There one can find all the necessary information (contract, tender documentation, decision of the Commission for Protection of Competition, if any etc.) related to each case. “We only need plans for procurement to have completed files for each case, but we hope to include this soon, once changes to the Law are adopted,” adds Jovanovic. People seem to find this data base useful, as in the last quarter of 2014, it had 500,000 visits.