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This week, we’ll launch a CGD Working Group report on Publishing Government Contracts at the Open Up? conference in London.  That’s an appropriate location not just because the UK is a leader in government contract publication, but also because London is a city that was made considerably safer and more pleasant by an early example of open contracting –involving the construction of the main drainage system by Joseph Bazalgette 150 years ago. 

The city had been wracked by cholera in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  The problem was made worse when sanitation official Edwin Chadwick decided the best way to get the miasma –fetid air that he believed caused cholera—away from Londoners was to pipe urine and feces from outhouses into a storm sewer system that emptied straight into the Thames.  The sewers drained into the river upstream from a number of intakes for pipes providing drinking water to much of the city’s populace.  As a result, cholera infected sewage was piped straight to faucets across London. 

Bazalgette’s main drainage system intercepted those sewers before they reached the river and sent the contents far downstream.  It was the greatest engineering project of the age, involving massive reclamation, tunneling, bridging and pumping works.  To house one of the drains, he constructed an embankment that holds the Circle Line Tube as well as creating the land for Victoria Tower Gardens by Parliament and the Whitehall Gardens further downstream.  The sewers are still in use today, and achieved their purpose completely: once the system was finished, London became free of cholera epidemics, saving tens of thousands of lives.

Bazalgette described his work in a report to London’s Institute of Civil Engineers, and his approach suggests the huge advantage of transparency in planning and execution of complex projects.  His initial designs for the sewers were subject to widespread and intense scrutiny, not least by Robert Stephenson (he of the Rocket) and Sir William Cubitt (who built the Crystal Palace), who jointly reported that "After a very careful examination of the reports and plans, and the elaborate set of sections and details which they (Messrs. Bazalgette and Haywood) have produced, together with the estimate founded thereon,” that:

“…the whole are worthy of every attention as regards the capacities and inclinations of the various intercepting drains, in relation to the quantities of water they have to carry and discharge. The matter is, in fact, so clearly and minutely set forth in report, plans, and sections, that the Engineers have laid themselves entirely open to detection by any persons who understand practical engineering, inasmuch as, in their present state, the documents would enable such a person to make a correct estimate of the amount at which any portion of the works might be contracted for; a fact highly creditable to the Engineers."

The Metropolitan Board of Works, who had appointed Bazalgette through an open, competitive process, kept watch over his progress at monthly meetings.  His salary and expenses were published (2,200 pounds in 1865) and the contracting process for the works themselves was kept remarkably transparent.  “I have always adopted the plan of having a lithographed circular sent out to every person who is supplied with plans in order that every contractor may have the same information before him before he tenders” said the engineer.  The results of tenders were announced at public meetings, and the winning bidders and the amount they won for was a matter of public record.  The three sections of the North side Thames Embankment, for example, were awarded to companies owned by Mr Furness (a contract of 500,000 pounds), Mr Ritson (247,000 pounds) and Mr Webster (127,000 pounds).

150 years later, all too many government tenders worldwide are awarded and managed with considerably less transparency than those overseen by Bazalgette. That’s a real shame.  The example of the London Intercepting Sewers shows that transparency can be a considerable benefit: increasing competition, keeping costs under control, ensuring quality and building trust.  And modern E-procurement systems and electronic publication make the costs of transparency far lower than in Victorian Britain. 

As the CGD Working Group report makes clear, there’s little excuse left for not publishing the complete texts of most government contracts as part of a broader open contracting agenda.  That might help diffuse the miasma of distrust around government contracting that can be as deadly to successful governance today as cholera was to Londoners in the age of Dickens.   

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