Successful Tool Re-Use in Open Contracting
There are an increasing number of open source tools available to publish, analyse, visualise, and work with government procurement data. But attempts to re-use these tools across contexts are not always successful.
In 2019, in collaboration with the Open Contracting Partnership and the World Bank Procurement Global team, The Engine Room conducted research into what conditions support (and frustrate) efforts to re-use open contracting tools. The detailed results of our findings, as well as a primer for potential tool re-users and a guidance document for tool authors and support providers, can be downloaded from the links below.
DOWNLOADS: GUIDELINES AND RESEARCH FINDINGS
- SUCCESSFUL TOOL RE-USE IN OPEN CONTRACTING: A PRIMER [1.1MB PDF] - guidance for organisations or individuals who are interested in re-using an existing tool.
- GUIDANCE FOR TOOL AUTHORS & SUPPORT PROVIDERS [700kb PDF] - tips for tool authors and support providers on how to best support successful tool re-use.
- RESEARCH FINDINGS & METHODOLOGY [90kb PDF] - a detailed summary of our research findings and methodologies.
To learn about open contracting more generally, here are some starting points:
Open contracting tool re-use involves a complex set of challenges, in part because needs, skills and resources can differ widely across contexts. In our research, we were able to identify a number of conditions that can dramatically improve the chances of success.
From our interviews, it became clear that the following types of support play a significant role in successful tool re-use.
Direct help and troubleshooting from the original tool author, or others who have in-depth understanding of the original tool
Ideally, support will be local and available in person. In almost every case of success we documented, whether in open contracting or in civic tech more generally, direct support played a crucial role – particularly where support was provided under contract and with dedicated funding.
Thorough and clear tool documentation
Detailed, comprehensive and accessible documentation ensures that a tool can be implemented in a new context smoothly, without unexpected gaps or hidden surprises. In cases where documentation is inadequate, this can lead at best to frustration and struggle, at worst to the abandonment of a project halfway through. (For tips on writing good documentation, see our GUIDELINES FOR TOOLS AUTHORS AND SUPPORT PROVIDERS.)
One of the key draws of re-use cited in our interviews was the opportunity to become part of a global community of people involved in related work, grappling with similar challenges and potentially able to offer advice or support. Community-building around tools and approaches can and does happen in a variety of ways, including through in-person events, mailing lists, Google Groups and GitHub. In the field of open contracting, there is a lot of room for strengthening and supporting these.
Good learning resources
There are already some good resources out there available for new implementers, but our interviews showed that more are needed, particularly on a relatively ‘intermediate’ level – i.e. pitched at those who are not necessarily programmers, but who would still like to get into more detail than provided by more ‘overview’ level resources.
Though this is, of course, a necessary condition for any technical project, it came up repeatedly in our interviews as something that tended to be underestimated in re-use efforts. Though re-use can do away with licensing costs as well as some of the costs involved in building tools from scratch, there are still significant costs to be covered. These include substantial developer time (for adaptation and implementation of the tool), as well as project management, long-term maintenance and sustainability, and infrastructure. Our research also found that joint funding models, which provide financial support to both the new implementer and the original tool author, have had success in re-use efforts outside of open contracting.
Tool adaptability, modularity and usability
Tools should ideally be as adaptable as possible
For a tool to be successfully re-used in a new context, a degree of adaptation is generally needed. For tool authors, this could mean building tools with adaptability in mind. A number of our interviewees noted the difficulty of adapting complex tools, and expressed a need for smaller, more modular tools that can be used together or extended.
The barrier to entry should ideally be lower
Open contracting systems often need to be used by a cross-section of users with differing technical abilities. In our interviews, technical complexity came up repeatedly as a barrier to successful re-use, and a need was expressed for tools that are easier for a wider range of people to use (e.g. web-based tools).
Recognition of differences in context
- Differences between the context the tool was originally designed for and the new context can be substantial, and can determine whether a re-use project is successful or not. (Differences in technological infrastructure, for example, were cited surprisingly frequently in our interviews as a barrier to success.)
- For practitioners interested in re-using a specific tool, this means looking at the context for which that tool was originally designed, mapping it carefully against their own, and adapting where necessary.
Adequate access to data, quality of data and government buy-in
Though not specific to re-use projects, the importance of quality data and political buy-in came up so often in our interviews that they deserve a mention. Lack of access to data and lack of quality data in particular were highlighted as major challenges.
As the field of open contracting continues to grow and tools continue to be developed, tool re-use is a critical part of the open contracting ecosystem. We hope that these findings and related guides extend an invitation to new tool as well as provide insights for existing practitioners.
The research methodology included desk research as well as hour-long interviews with a total of 23 people, including civic technologists and data analysts as well as open contracting tool authors, tool re-users, and support providers.
These interviewees were based in the UK, Lithuania, Nigeria, Mexico, Romania, Colombia, Canada, the US, Uruguay, Malawi, Hungary, Kenya, Paraguay, Nepal and Pakistan.
Research & writing
Grace Higdon: Research & writing
Helen Kilbey: Writing, editing & project management
Review & feedback
Zara Rahman & Julia Keseru, The Engine Room
James McKinney, Open Contracting Partnership
Kristina Aquino & Samuel Garoni, World Bank Procurement global team
Library entry first published in January 2020
Comments or questions? Mail us! firstname.lastname@example.org.