2022 Winner

Use and abuse of emergency contracts during the pandemic

Country/area: Spain

Organisation: Civio

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 23/03/2021

Credit: Eva Belmonte, David Cabo, Carmen Torrecillas, Antonio Hernández, Ángela Bernardo, María Álvarez Del Vayo, Miguel Ángel Gavilanes, Lucas Laursen


The Civio Foundation (Fundación Ciudadana Civio) is an independent, non-profit organization based in Spain which monitors public authorities, reports to all citizens and lobbies to achieve true and effective transparency within our institutions. We work for the following: to achieve free access to the information generated by them; to understand how they make decisions; to have public policies based on evidence; to succeed in the public sector being held accountable; and to facilitate action and public participation. The levers we use to achieve these changes are journalism and innovation. We are a multi-disciplinary team of 10 (journalists, computer programmers, and experts in communications and marketing, institutional relations and business development) with international patronage and an advisory board committed to improving democracy.

This investigation is part of Tenders Guru, a project funded by the European Union that aims to monitor public procurement processes in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Spain.

Project description:

In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, Spanish public administrations used emergency procedures to grant companies – in a discretionary way and with minimal control nor transparency -16,589 contracts for 6,445 million euros. And, although the vast majority of these contracts were used to purchase health supplies against COVID-19, they were also used to grant public television concessions, to purchase tasers and even to hire camels for a parade on Christmas. In this data-driven investigation, Civio analyzed for the first time the emergency contracts of all the Spanish public administrations -national, regional and local- awarded and published in 2020.

Impact reached:

This investigation is a series of three articles. To work on the issue, the team extracted, cleaned and structured and completed data for months (finding omission of information, errors, incoherent codes, delays and differences in the forms of publication of each administration…) to make up the most exhaustive emergency contracting database available in Spain. Understanding the data required the knowledge accumulated for years investigating public contracts and the technical capacities of the team. Sparing no time, cost or effort.

We reveal three facts: 1) There was a lot of concentration of the money granted in a few companies. Four companies took 10% of all 6,445 million euros. And the one which was awarded the most was not even related to health matters before the pandemic; 2) The supply price gouging which unleashed as the pandemic evolved. There was a lack of stock of many products and intermediaries eager to do business, on occasions, deceived public administrations. For example, while some public bodies paid 25 cents per unit for FFP2 masks, others paid 8 euros each. 3) The rules of emergency contracting were not followed. More than half of the contracts were published late, and many had not yet been made public when this investigation came to light.

This series was published by Civio -with El País acting as republishing partner- and reached tens of thousands of readers. Additionally, many other Spanish outlets echoed the investigation, e.g. La Sexta, RTVE, TV3 and La Razón, among many others.

One of Civio’s main goals is to lobby when we, after spending months working on an issue, find something that should be changed. For this purpose, we have shared our datasets with almost twenty public procurement and anti-corruption monitoring bodies and have met with some of them to share our recommendations.

Techniques/technologies used:

The data used in this article comes from the Public Sector Contracting Platform (PLCSP), where the majority of Spanish public entities publish procurement data. We scraped all contracts published from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020. They total 119,976. In addition, we have also added the contracts that some regional administrations (such as Madrid and Catalonia) publish on their own websites and only summarise on the PLCSP. We found 53,838 such contracts. The goal was to create a comprehensive database for understanding emergency procurement in 2020 and detect potential abuses of the rules.

Once we created the database, we reviewed it for possible errors through a combination of automated and manual processes: duplicate files, mis-classified procedures, lots with the wrong prices, mistaken fiscal identification numbers or names written differently each time…

Once the dataset was cleased and stored in a PostgreSQL database, a numer of SQL queries were performed to provide data journalists with subsets to analyse. E.g. total awards per company, evolution of unit prices along time for specific products, time delays.

Interactive visualisations were a key element of the final product, in order to explain to a general audience a complex subject. A variety of visual elements were custom developed using the JavaScript D3.js library on the Observable platform through different modular notebooks. All of them are responsive, adapting to the different device sizes including small mobile displays, and are easily embeddable in multiple languages through Iframe HTML code.

What was the hardest part of this project?

We have been investigating public contracting for years in Civio and it is always one of the most complex subjects we put ourselves to work in. Data has mistakes: duplicate files, mis-classified procedures, wrong prices, mistaken fiscal identification numbers (especially in the case of non-EU companies, which tend to be inconsistently filled in) or names written differently each time, and separate contracts published together that we have had to extract and separate ourselves manually or any other problem that you can imagine. We always plan these projects for a work load of months knowing the difficulties, and we always end up spending, at least, a couple more months to finish them.

We have filled in as many gaps as possible using the information we had, so we have had to dig up the original award documents when needed. And, sometimes, we couldn’t even find basic information in those documents, such as what had been bought from whom and for how much money. The two main barriers have been missing information and inconsistency and typos in the data.

But the end result has been worth it: we have the most comprehensive emergency contracting database available in Spain. It has served to radiograph how our public institutions have been contracting during a time when everybody was looking at the pandemic and to detect abuses. And also, we designed a search engine to facilitate any query about emergency contracting in public administrations and have released all databases on our site.

What can others learn from this project?

We take public contracting very seriously and have been advocating for changes for many years. We believe that transparency in this issue could, at least, make it easier to find abuses within the system. Since it has been very difficult to pursue these kinds of changes, we always make the subject knowledge available for everyone, specially, journalists. For instance, we have recorded a series of short videos in which we explain basic principles for investigating public contracts: legal framework, sources of information, essential concepts, red flags (signs of possible fraud) and how to find journalistic stories in the fine print of the contractual information. All videos are available in both Spanish and English on our webpage or Youtube.

Also, we made public all of the four repositories of emergency contracts that we created for this investigation. They have already been downloaded about a hundred times. Mainly by journalists, academic institutions and civil society organizations. Many of them even made their own stories with our data. For example, Carlos Otto, from El Confidencial, used the data to put the magnifying glass on emergency awards in a particular area: the cybersecurity of administrations; the newspaper Las Provincias looked at the public administrations of the Valencian Community in this information. And El Comercio focused on Asturias: it used our data to report emergency awards in the region and how the price paid there for some products tripled in less than 10 days. We are proud to create information that can be used and analysed with different angles for common knowledge and for the fight for transparency in public administrations.

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