The 8p banana that showed Bogotá needed open public spending

Something was rotten in the Colombian capital’s school food contracts. We faced fierce resistance trying to fix the problem, but we fought to achieve transparency

María Victoria Angulo is education secretary for Bogotá

Children at a school in Soacha, near Bogota, Colombia. On a typical school day, about a million pupils eat a meal in the capital city’s public schools.
Children at a school in Soacha, near Bogota, Colombia. On a typical school day, about a million pupils eat a meal in the capital city’s public schools. Photograph: John Vizcaino/Reuters

On a typical school day in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, about a million pupils, from four to 18 years old, will sit down for a meal at one of our 384 public schools.

Balanced nutrition is crucial for children’s development. The food we provide may well be their main meal for the entire day. So when concerns were raised in 2016 over the quality, delivery, price, and even the origin of our meals, we took them very seriously.

Colombia had recently started publishing detailed public contracting records as open data for the first time. So our first port of call was to work with our national procurement agency, Colombia Compra Eficiente, to analyse the US$136m that we were spending on meals and other services. What we found shocked us: severe inefficiency, or worse.

Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and I set out radical reforms based on an open contracting approach. We established minimum and maximum prices for meals and we made the whole contracting process competitive and fully open. Sourcing, packing and distribution of food would no longer be a single contract, and the lowest bid price would not be the deciding factor when choosing a supplier. Instead, it would be about quality.

We began sharing all the information about how meals were procured, from their planning to their delivery, on a public online platform for anyone to see, in a way that was easy to understand.

We faced resistance from all directions. Some of the existing suppliers threatened to sue, with nine lawsuits attempting to halt the process, and tensions flared in our politically polarised city, with more than 10 debates in the city council over the process. On top of that, a media smear campaign attempted to discredit and sabotage the reforms by spreading misleading information about, for example, food arriving damaged because of the new system.

Source: The 8p banana that showed Bogotá needed open public spending | María Victoria Angulo | Public Leaders Network | The Guardian

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