How open contracting helped fix Colombia’s biggest school meal program

Open Contracting Stories: “In the early hours of the morning, in an industrial area of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, a warehouse hums with workers, their faces barely visible under white masks and hair nets. The walls are stacked with colored plastic crates. Filled with various fruit, cereals, drinks, and desserts, they will be packed into refrigerated trucks and delivered to public schools all over Bogotá before most children have settled in for their first classes. A similar operation is underway in five other warehouses across the city, as part of a $170 million program to ensure fresh, nutritious food reaches more than 800,000 hungry students between the age of four and 18 every day.

Food delivery and its quality have not always been so streamlined in the past. High poverty rates in the city mean that many children consume their main meal for the day at school. And getting those refreshments to the schools at over 700 locations each day is a huge logistical challenge. With a population of nearly nine million inhabitants, Bogotá is one of the largest cities in Latin America and one of the most traffic congested cities in the world.

Then there’s the notorious inefficiency and corruption in the provision of school meals across Colombia. Suppliers throughout the country have regularly been accused of failing to deliver food or inflating prices in scandalsthat made national headlines. In the city of Cartagena, chicken breasts sent to schools cost four times the amount as those at markets and the children reportedly never received 30 million meals. In the Amazonas region, an investigation by the Comptroller General found the price of a food contract was inflated by more than 297 million pesos (US$100,000), including pasta purchased at more than three times the market rate….

The solution, based on the pilot and these conversations, was to divide the process in two to cut out the middlemen and reduce transaction costs. The first part was sourcing the food. The second was to organize the assembly and distribution of the snacks to every school.

Suppliers are now commissioned by participating in a tender for a framework agreement that sets the general conditions and price caps, while quantities and final prices are established when a purchase is needed.

“In a normal contract, we say, for example, ‘you will give me five apples and they will cost 100.’ In a framework agreement, we say ‘you will provide me apples for one year at a maximum price of X’, and each time we put up a purchase order, we have several suppliers and capped prices. So they bid on purchase orders when needed,” explains Penagos.

Each food item has several suppliers under this new framework agreement. So if one supplier can’t fulfill the purchase order or has a logistical issue, another supplier can take over. This prevents a situation where suppliers have so much bargaining power that they can set their own prices and conditions knowing that the administration can’t refuse because it would mean the children don’t receive the food.

The purchase orders are filled each month on the government’s online marketplace, with the details of the order published for the public to see which supplier won…

Sharing information with the public, parents and potential suppliers was an important part of the plan, too. Details about how the meals were procured became available on a public online platform for all to see, in a way that was easy to understand.

Through a public awareness campaign, Angulo, the education secretary, told the public about the faults in the market that the secretariat had detected. They had changed the process of public contracting to be more transparent….(More).