Rollback on Participatory Reform Gains in Government Procurement?

By: Joy Aceron*


After attending the online two-day training of the Government Procurement Policy Board (GPPB) for Civil Society Organization (CSO) observers last July 29-30, I can’t help but reflect on whether there has been a significant rollback in the participatory reforms in the country’s government procurement.

Government Watch (G-Watch) has long been engaging government procurement reforms since it was established in 2000. G-Watch had several initiatives, such as the Textbook Count, Bayanihang Eskwela and Protect Procurement Project, that centered on CSO engagement in procurement processes. Lately, G-Watch’s engagement has been limited to mainly monitoring policies, particularly transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) reforms, in government procurement, but G-Watch representatives all over the country continue to take part in bidding observation and validation of procurement performance assessments as observers and validators. We have been noting some few positive developments, but have also been worried of some backward steps and pitfalls.

This piece reflects on the participatory reform gains in Philippine government procurement achieved through decades of civil society campaigns and their emerging status at present based on the resources used in the GPPB July 29-30 training and the current G-Watch procurement engagement.

The Government Procurement Reform Act (GRPA) was passed in 2003 with considerable provisions to ensure TPA in procurement processes. The TPA measures in the GPRA is in account of the lobbying of civil society organizations that were active in the advocacy for the passage of the GPRA.

While there are TPA provisions in GPRA, the provisions alone have proven to be insufficient in ensuring meaningful participation of CSOs in procurement. There have been numerous hurdles and limitations that procurement CSOs have been trying to address since the passage of the GPRA. On the other hand, while the measures that CSOs were able lobby during the heyday of CSO participation in procurement reforms in early 2000 and during the Aquino administration were not sufficient to ensure meaningful CSO participation in the procurement, these were significant gains that could have been built on in the succeeding years. Unfortunately, there are indications that the truncated and insufficient participatory reform gains in government procurement achieved have been diluted, got stuck or overturned in recent years.

Below are some of these procurement reform gains.


  • Ensure that the government abide by GRPA CSO observers requirement by making this a key procurement performance indicator and setting a timeframe for the invites to the CSOs.

One significant TPA provision in the GPRA is the requirement for all procuring entities to invite observers from non-government organizations in bidding processes. This is a significant victory for CSOs because this ensures CSOs have access to biddings, especially those noted to be prone to corruption. While there is this provision in the procurement law that government agencies are mandated to follow, there have been reasons and excuses for the procuring entities in the government to avoid compliance to this.

In the years of CSO engagement in the procurement in the Philippines, the focus of the advocacy has been on how to make government procuring entities compliant to this requirement. One advocacy call was to make this part of what is checked in procurement performance assessments.

In 2012, the government adopted the Agency Procurement Compliance and Performance Indicators (APCPI). It is a self-assessment tool that all procuring entities need to undertake as part of the regular performance assessment of their procurement system. One of the key indicators checked in the APCPI is whether the procuring entity was compliant to the requirement of inviting NGOs as observers and other transparency and accountability measures.

Another gain achieved through advocacies of procurement CSOs in the past was the requirement for government to send their invites to CSOs ahead of time. Today, the requirement is to send invites to NGOs five (5) working days before the bidding. This was a significant advocacy gain because one perennial complaint by procurement CSOs in the past was the short notice invitations sent by government, which constrained CSOs from joining the biddings.

While these are considerable gains in ensuring CSOs get to participate in the biddings, recent years showed that there are still limitations to these gains. There has not been any consolidated and comprehensive assessment of how compliant have government procuring entities been to the requirement of inviting CSO observers. The APCPI results are not being consolidated and analyzed to be made available to the public. And except for getting low marks in performance assessments, the consequences to non-compliance to this requirement for procuring entities is also unclear.

There is also a significant loophole to the invitation requirement. Because government biddings could proceed even without a CSO observer for as long as there is a proof of an invitation sent to CSOs, government offices seem to have just been going through the motion of sending invites to CSOs via fax and emails without even extending any effort to facilitate NGO attendance. There is also obscurity whether government agencies are seeking confirmation for receipt of their invitations.

In the case of G-Watch Center, we would reply to invites to attend biddings with a note that our involvement should include a setting of clear partnership parameters and goals with the agency. Whenever we send this communication to the agencies, we get no appropriate response; or worse, no longer receive another invite.


  • Proactive support to CSO participation in biddings were sought and responded to by the donor community and private sector in the early years of GPRA and somehow by the government during the Aquino administration.

For CSOs to attend biddings as observers, CSO representatives need money for their logistical costs such as transportation, food and communication. In the early years of GRPA, especially in early 2000, the donor community responded by funding CSOs for the conduct of trainings and support to observe biddings and monitor contract implementation. I started engaging government procurement around this time. There were trainings left and right and CSO coalitions were active in determining CSO representation to critical agencies for observation of biddings and monitoring of programs. The private sector also chipped in, mobilizing donations from businesses to support church and NGOs’ procurement monitoring activities.

Even with the vibrancy of CSOs at that time (early 2000), we knew that we could not cover all agencies. There were efforts to be strategic, focusing on agencies with huge budget and were perceived to be vulnerable to corruption. CSO coalitional work was strong, supported by the donor community and the private sector. In the government, the GPPB set up a CSO advisory body, which I became a part of.

CSO coalitions engaging procurement are now all gone (perhaps hibernating). CSOs that are engaging procurement hardly coordinate activities. I noticed in the GPPB training that there were a good number of CSOs that attended, both Manila-based and from the provinces. There were CSOs there that have been engaging procurement from the start and a lot that are new. This is welcome news. However, CSOs no longer coordinate and consolidate procurement monitoring efforts. It is sad that CSOs only get to know of each other during events organized by the government. A huge factor here is the lack of support to CSO procurement engagement and coalitional work. At present, there is no active coalition of CSOs engaged in procurement or in anti-corruption, in general – a huge gap in civil society accountability campaigns in the Philippines at present.

In the July 29-30 GPPB training, too, I did not hear of any functioning CSO advisory body in the GPPB and only the private sector (business) is represented in the GPPB. This is a significant backward step in ensuring CSOs strategically engage government procurement.

Under the Aquino administration, the government tried to address the problem of logistical support to CSO attendance in biddings by setting up a CSO empowerment fund. Financing CSOs’ procurement engagement was also negotiated with COA. The CSO empowerment fund and the lobbying with COA barely progressed, but these were steps towards the right direction that could have been built on. As it seems, these efforts were dropped in recent years.

Based on the July 29-30 GPPB training, the government is back to its policy of zero support to CSO attendance in biddings as observers. The resource person said this is to ensure the independence of CSOs.

The issue of whether government financing of CSO procurement observation would compromise CSO independence was supposedly resolved already. What is being demanded is not remuneration, but support to direct costs. CSOs are not asking to be paid. CSOs are not asking for incentives. The government should provide the resources needed to address the logistical constraints to CSO participation. Specifically, this refers to providing allocation for food, transportation and communication for CSO representatives attending biddings.

The logistical support to CSO involvement in the procurement would definitely not jeopardize CSO independence. Resources of the government come from taxpayers money. CSOs will not get paid for their time. Their procurement engagement will remain as voluntary work that is not incentivized by money in any way. CSOs are simply asking that they no longer shoulder the direct costs. In fact, CSOs have been arguing that the funds need not come from government alone. Government agencies should facilitate strategic partnerships with NGOs that include fund-raising and engaging the donor and international development community.

Logistical costs to CSO involvement in procurement should form part of the direct costs of bidding activities of the government. This is especially valid since the government is not only asking for time from CSOs, but is also requiring CSOs to file their report on their observation. In the past, the required report from CSOs was not overly emphasized by the government. In the July 29-30 GRPA training, there seemed to be more emphasis and demand from government on this. 


  • Expanding the interpretation of GPRA’s provisions on CSO participation in government procurement

G-Watch has worked hard to expand the coverage of the TPA provisions in the GPRA to include contract implementation. The GPRA is explicit about the required involvement of NGOs in biddings. However, the GPRA does not provide any specific mechanisms for CSO involvement in contract implementation.

G-Watch has been arguing that by “CSO participation in procurement,” the GPRA is referring to all procurement stages, including contract implementation that covers the actual delivery of services and implementation of programs and projects. Plus, G-Watch argues that expanding the application of TPA in procurement is the intent of GPRA since transparency, participation and accountability are central to the GPRA guiding principles.

During the heyday of CSO procurement engagement in the early 2000s, the government seemed to have accepted the G-Watch interpretation of the GPRA provisions on CSO participation. That time too, the donor community supported CSO initiatives that engage the procurement from biddings to contract implementation to audit. An example of those initiatives is Textbook Count that has been the model of strategic citizen action for accountability that worked.

Another way G-Watch has expanded CSO participation in procurement is by introducing the concept of “informal observers.” One constraint posted by GPRA in the early years was its qualification for NGOs that can take part as observers. Only NGOs formally registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (for cooperatives, those registered with the Cooperatives Development Authority) was allowed. This excluded many organizations especially those at the community/ local government levels.

G-Watch put forward a policy recommendation in late 2000 as a product of its procurement engagement to allow NGO representatives from any kind of NGOs as “informal observers.” G-Watch argued that this is consistent with the intent of GPRA to promote open, transparent and competitive bidding. Informal observers can attend, but they cannot sign bidding minutes as observers. Again, during the early 2000s until the time of the Aquino administration, the issue about CSOs not being allowed to serve as observers in biddings has hardly come up in consultations. There seemed to be more openness to any kinds of NGOs that were willing to volunteer as procurement observers and monitors.

As per GPPB training last July 29-30, the decision of whether NGO representatives that are not formally registered can be allowed to attend biddings lies in the procuring entity. One resource person was overly particular about the eligibility requirements for NGOs, underscoring strict compliance to what is stated in the GPRA. Another resource person said procurement processes should be open to the public, but seemed this was his take and not the standing government policy on this matter.

Resource persons of the July 29-30 GPPB training did not include contract implementation as part of the procurement process that CSOs can engage. The trainings only talked about CSO involvement in procurement as observers. Once again, this limited the scope of what government should subject to CSO observation and monitoring. The idea was to pressure government to ensure CSOs are present at all stages of the procurement.


  • Demand-driven/ bottom-up identification of procurement information that were made more accessible to CSOs and the public

One positive development I noted from the July 29-30 GPPB training was the apparent expansion of efforts to improve access to information. New open data portals have been created, such as the GPPB Online Portal that also has all COVID-19 procurement data and the Online Blacklisting Portal that has the list of blacklisted suppliers crucial to preventing bad performing suppliers from again participating in biddings. Also now, there are more “transparency requirements” for procuring entities and the online mode is being maximized for the conduct of biddings, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I can imagine all of these as products of the recent Open Data advocacy wave and the promotion of digital governance. These are all good news, especially if Open Data principles (complete, timely, accessible, machine processable, non-discriminatory, to name a few) are observed and the use of information and communication technology addresses the huge digital divide in the country.

One point of departure from past CSO procurement engagement worth noting, though, which is connected to my earlier point, is how the data being made available online are supply-driven or initiated from the top by the government in cooperation with donors (GPPB online portal is supported by the USAID). In the past, demands for information was usually tied to a specific monitoring initiative of a program or service. It was goal-oriented usually set by CSOs in coordination with government. It was mainly demand-driven and bottom-up. The information was automatically deemed useful and strategic because it was vital, central even, to a given civil society campaign.

The problem of lack of support to procurement CSOs automatically limits the extent the procurement data being made available online by the government would be used in grassroots advocacy campaign. I have seen some technical CSOs or think-tanks and media making use of the procurement data online. However, this is still different from the past when information from government was immediately used or fed into ongoing campaigns - either as supporting evidence to advocacies or as part of a monitoring effort. Information was actionable because it was demanded where and when action was at. Now, while more procurement data are overflowing online, the extent of use is likely problematic. Because it is supply-dependent, the problem of whether the available data are, in fact, useful and actionable is valid and pressing.


Above are key participatory reform gains achieved in the past years of CSO procurement engagement. Obviously, there could be more data on the ground and experience of other CSOs that need to be taken into account to definitively answer whether there has been a rollback in participatory gains in government procurement or not. However, based on G-Watch’s experience and the policies and standards communicated by GPPB in its July 29-30 training, the prospects are deem.


* Joy Aceron is convenor-director of G-Watch and researcher-adviser to Accountability Research Center (,