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An Informed Citizen Is Better Empowered – Nkem

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Nkem Ilo is the chief executive officer of the Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC). In this interview with MAKINDE OLUWAROTIMI, she explains the importance of transparency in public institutions, citizens’ participation in procurement processes among other things.

Tell us about the vision of PPDC.

In a country where there is citizens’ participation, where you have citizens informed and participating actively, you tend to find out that the society grows; there is improvement in infrastructure, there is development and that is why PPDC was set up. Our vision is a society with its people fully empowered, realising their full potentials and asserting their citizenship under a transparent and accountable governance process. Our programme areas are public procurement governance, which means public procurement, contract implementation and service delivery; Digital Inclusion and Safer Internet; and Nigeria Integrity Film Awards (HomeVida).

Under our procurement governance programme, we began, in addition to other stakeholders, with working on the inclusion of laudable provisions in the Public Procurement Act that provided for public participation in the procurement process. The Public Procurement Act was passed in 2007 and one of the key things we did was to mobilise citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) around public procurement to make sure there is compliance with the Act. We also built capacity around public procurement monitoring and mobilised several CSOs and independent citizens to participate in the procurement process in accordance with the Act. We have done this for several years and it is something we will continue to do. As part of our procurement governance program, we also monitor contract implementation. We go to the field and monitor projects for which contracts have been awarded. We ask questions as to how it is being executed and get feedback from the community to stakeholders. We take this feedback to the different procurement entities, the contractors, stakeholders and regulatory agencies around a project or the subject matter.

One of the things we realised in the course of monitoring is the fact that access to information is important; information is key otherwise all you do comes to nothing. Following the impressive work done by several CSOs like Media Rights Agenda, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 2011 was passed and became a relevant tool in the work we do. We currently run a program that ranks the compliance levels of public institutions with the provisions of the FOIA. Under this programme, we recognise public institutions complying with the Act with an award. The FOIA Compliance Ranking is released every 28th of September, on the international right to know day. The ranking assesses the level of disclosure around public expenditure. We have also had cause to carry out litigations using the FOIA. The focus of our litigations goes beyond being adversarial, rather, we are guided by the need to build jurisprudence on the FOIA and give judicial interpretations to some of the provisions. Having judicial precedents backing the law helps in promoting compliance. On the other hand, we try to improve the capacities of public institutions in implementing the law. This, we do through targeted advocacies and FOI trainings.

A key takeaway from all the work we had done on public procurement and FOIA was the non-availability of structured, linkage data across the various stages of the contracting process. This was why, in 2015, following months of rigorous research, consultations, technical development and advocacies, we launched the Budeshi platform. Budeshi, which means, ‘Open It’, in Hausa Language, is our open contracting programme. Under this programme, we are currently providing support to sub-national governments and public institutions in building public disclosure platforms.

Under this programme, we see that the possibilities for public participation, transparency and accountability are endless- once we have effective and sustained disclosure platforms in Nigeria, both at the national and subnational levels, more information is proactively disclosed around contracting, and once such information is out there, it becomes a medium to activate more citizens’ participation, to get more citizens interested in their government because every resource government spends comes from the public resource; minerals or our tax. So, every Nigerian should be interested in how funds move from procurement of goods, works or services to the public services delivery that we all use. If more citizens were interested and participating in how government expends the public funds, you would have a situation in which there is better health care system, better education system, better transportation system etc.

As I had earlier mentioned, we also have this program called Digital Inclusion and Safer Internet (DISI), which strives to improve user inclusion in the digital space as well as promote a culture of online safety and responsibility among children and young adults using the internet in Nigeria. With more of the world as we know it going online and becoming a global village, we need to equip our digital citizens to understand the socio-economic value of the Internet as well as the responsibilities of a digital citizen. So we are working with several government agencies to carry out trainings in schools to build capacity of our children and parents.

A component of our DISI programme is the Web Rangers Project where we identify a young child or a group of school aged children that have shown remarkable skills in the digital space and make them ambassadors to other schools and school aged children to spur a movement of safety and respect for the Internet.

Finally, we have the Nigeria Integrity Film Award (HomeVida). You will agree with me that film is a medium of communication. Film takes data and all the difficult communication and puts it in a way that people can understand, see and relate with their own lives and that is what Homevida sets out to achieve.

It is a creative platform for promoting integrity values through film. Homevida provides incentives for young filmmakers and scriptwriters to write and develop scripts that promote sound integrity values. These scripts are turned into short films that are premiered at annual award ceremony, which takes place in December. Under this program, we have trained about 300 filmmakers and produced 24 short films with value driven messaging.

 

You talked about litigation of some government agencies, how successful has that been?

It has been quite successful. For example, we have carried out actions against the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, Integrated Parking Services etc. One challenge we had faced was public agencies saying they were not required to disclose public contracting information under the FOI because of third party contract information. One of the earliest decisions we obtained from court was that once a procurement process had concluded and a contractor had been awarded the contract, there was no third-party information requiring protection as the contract had been completed. This is unlike the process of negotiation. As I said, our litigations help give life to the provisions of the FOI.

Judicial interpretations help to explain the law, for example when federal government agencies assume that the FOI did not apply to them, even recently, the NNPC made such claims but if you look at the judicial decisions, it explained what the Act says about which agencies are covered by the Act. As long as you are a government agency set up by the federal government, and carrying out public service functions, or a private body, spending government money, you are bound by the Act and that is why we carry out these litigations to give pronouncements to those provisions within the Act.

 

How do you plan to increase citizens’ participation?

I think that an informed citizen is a better-empowered citizen and this includes ensuring that every Nigerian citizen is included in the digital policy. We believe that if we have more information available to people out there, we are better placed to empower them on their rights.  For example, in one of our project monitoring, we visited a community and we told them that this was supposed to have been built, and this was the amount that was supposed to have been used and this was the contractor. This was part of our Budeshi tour. The feedback we got was that the contractor had given the impression that the community was being done a favour. This could be interpreted to mean that they hadn’t been informed about the project and what to expect.

Government can’t be everywhere. Yes, there are monitoring and evaluation departments within government agencies but they can’t be everywhere. But if we can leverage the big brother eye of citizens, for every citizen to act as a representative of government within their communities, if we can activate the citizens’ ownership of their project, if I can convince you that the primary health care facility that is situated in your community, was built with money from your taxes, your resources and that if you are unable to access health care because the contract or facility is not there, it affects you and we are able to get enough citizens’ participation and interest, we will have a more accountable society and that is what we are trying to do, to allow citizens’ access and allow for them to interrogate the process.

 

How do you intend to improve government cooperation?

 

There are government agencies that are not exactly non-cooperative; some of them are administratively challenged because they can’t respond to every FOI request. Imagine if every CSO requests for information on one particular thing and that is why we say, why don’t you proactively disclose information? We think that government needs to cooperate with civil society organisations (CSOs) because they are closer to the grassroots. When CSOs bring feedback from the field, it is important to have government act on those feedbacks and provide information to the CSOs on what actions they have taken and how those actions would mitigate the challenges identified. It’s also important for CSOs to build the capacities of people running the government agencies. So, it’s not just about being adversarial, but also being collaborative. How can we collaboratively work on these; how can we amplify the work that you’re doing; how can we be an agent for change in the work you’re doing? So, I think it’s finding those connections. It’s a whole mix of different strategies but we think that as we approach this from different angles, there are more opportunities to have collaborations with government.

 

Advice To Government?

 

My advice to the government is to utilise citizens at their disposal. When you bring citizens to the room and open your doors, people are more willing to be sympathetic and also help in achieving your goals. An open government in every form helps transparency, accountable, infrastructure development and efficient public service delivery.

 

 

 



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