Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


Views from the Center


A couple of weeks ago, CGD hosted a workshop on a transparency proposal we’re calling (at least for the moment) Publish What You Buy.  In the spirit of openness, I meant to blog about it straight after --but where would have been the irony in that?   So, two weeks later, (still) faster than a speeding freedom of information request denial, here’s a brief write-up.

Publish What You Buy is a very simple idea: Governments should publish the full copy of every contract they sign with a company to provide goods, works or services.  Buy a new bridge? Put the contract online.  Buy a jet for the President of Tanzania?  Put the contract online.  Buy thirty thousand colored eggs for the White House egg roll?  Put the contract online.

I wrote an outline of the logic behind the idea here.  In short, publication could improve competition, reduce costs for bidders, and lower the cost and improve the quality of services provided to governments.  As much to the point, publication will tell citizens what governments are buying on their behalf.  It is our money paying for this stuff, after all.

At the workshop, we discussed the idea with fifteen colleagues from transparency groups, the World Bank and the IADB.  There was a widespread feeling that now is a good moment to push Publish What You Buy not least because Colombia and the UK now both routinely putting their contracts online (so much for arguments it is just all too complicated).

But the workshop also raised a number of issues: Might publication help cartels? What about commercial secrets and guidelines regarding the redaction of sensitive information?  What’s the political economy of publication?  How does this link with existing initiatives?  What would be the role for an international effort?

Over the next few months, we’re hoping to think through more of details of the idea.  That will involve a first working paper outlining the rationale and issues, learning more about the Colombian and UK experiences, thinking more about the potential impact of Publish What You Buy, and putting together a working group to mull some of the legal, commercial and practical issues connected with publication alongside the role for a multilateral effort in support.  And if you have any thoughts on any of that, it would be great to hear them!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.