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How Integrity Pacts turned high school students into promoters of citizen engagement in public contracting

Integrity Pacts can increase citizen engagement in public contracting; our experience with high school students in Italy shows how

Colourful school lockers

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash.

Mahmoud Farag
Mahmoud Farag

Postdoctoral Fellow at Institute of Political Science, University of Zurich

This article is part of a series exploring the positive impact of Integrity Pacts on public procurement, backed by evidence from 18 pilot projects in the EU.

The importance of citizen engagement in the monitoring of public contracting is widely recognised. The Clean Contracting Manifesto, for instance, calls for effective and meaningful participation by affected communities in the public procurement process. Similarly, the Open Contracting Global Principles urge governments to foster an environment that recognises, promotes, protects and creates opportunities for public consultation and monitoring at all stages of public procurement. These recommendations are part of a wider move to engage the public in scrutinising the decisions that affect them and to promote greater social accountability.

In the European Union, some research shows younger generations expressing high levels of political apathy and alienation. This can stem from a belief that their interests are not represented or a lack of channels that offer meaningful participation in public affairs. Other times, it originates in a lack of political knowledge or understanding of different forms of political participation.

Our experience from Italy shows that by using Integrity Pacts, civil society organisations can answer some of these concerns and provide a channel for youth engagement.

Integrity Pacts EU logo + background photo of a construction site

Integrity Pact is a real-time monitoring mechanism for public contracting procedures. It brings together contracting authorities, bidders, and civil society to monitor a specific contracting project. Since 2015, we have been piloting Integrity Pacts in 11 EU countries, together with the European Commission and local civil society groups.

Integrity Pacts – Civil control mechanism for safeguarding EU funds

Bringing public contracting to high schools in Italy

Engaging communities requires finding a good entry point. When the Union of Madonie Municipalities in Sicily decided to sign an Integrity Pact for their energy efficiency procurement projects, the civic monitor Amapola decided to engage students in the monitoring process. In such a low population density region, it turned out that the best entry point was the school-work alternation program. The program, which has been in place since 2003 as part of secondary education reform, requires students to divide their time between classroom lessons and practical work activities. It, thus, encourages a “learning by doing” approach.

Amapola signed agreements with two local high schools and ran two school labs, one in each school, over four months in 2018 and 2020. In total, 21 students, age 17 to 18, took part in the labs. In the first one, every student spent 80 hours, while each student spent 25 hours in the second lab. The students first received introductory training on public procurement, Integrity Pacts and the public contracting projects that Amapola monitors in energy efficiency and education. They were then divided into groups, with each assigned a completed public contracting project. In groups, students analysed public contracting documents, visited municipalities to access documents and undertook field visits to the project sites.

At the end of each lab, the students presented their findings at a final public event that brought together school students from other classes, their families, teachers and representatives from public authorities. Students were given the freedom to present the work in the form of their choice: some prepared a poster, others prepared a presentation, and a third group created a video to document their lab and monitoring activities.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the monitor had to move the activities of their second lab online. This was challenging at the beginning, but eventually, students got used to it. The final public event in Valledolmo could not be held face-to-face either and therefore was live-streamed on Facebook and was viewed by more than one thousand people.

Engaging students, raising active citizens

Students walked out of these labs with increased awareness and interest in public contracting and public spending. Before they participated in the labs, all students had already heard about the term public contracting. However, few knew what exactly the process entailed.

Prior to their participation, only one-third of the students could correctly define public contracting. By the end, 85 per cent of the students got the definition right.

The labs also contributed to strengthening students’ capacity in monitoring public contracting. Most students (90 per cent) reported a high or a very high increase in their ability to analyse public contracting data and write monitoring reports. In the words of Filippo Fantauzzo, one of the lab participants:

Our work has focused on the analysis and verification of all the steps related to the contract since its inception. We learned how to orient ourselves in a world made of minutes, official documents, complex bureaucratic mechanisms and a veritable galaxy of laws and regulations. What really pushed me to evaluate this experience positively is the ability to touch the concreteness of reality, understanding how challenging and complex it is to make sure public money is spent properly.

The labs, furthermore, boosted students’ interest in public contracting. Around one-half (52 per cent) of the students reported high interest in the topic of public contracting, even before the start of the labs. As the project went on, students reported that they became even more interested.

According to Dario Zimbardo, a high school student:

As an Italian citizen, I believe it is right that I can know in total autonomy if the future taxes I will pay will be used correctly. One cannot fail to recognise the practical utility of civic monitoring. What struck me most about this activity was discovering why very often the complex bureaucratic process gets stuck blocking the work of a public project, especially if I think that in my personal experience, I often hear complaints about blocked construction sites without ever understanding the reason behind that. Another no less important aspect is precisely the bureaucratic process itself, which I had never had the opportunity to know before and which I now feel able to follow.

Citizen engagement pays off

Engaging affected communities in monitoring public contracting requires a lot of effort on the part of civil society organisations. Such actions must be rooted in context analysis and strategies that support the meaningful engagement of different social groups.

In the case of youth, it means breaking up misconceptions about political actions, addressing a lack of awareness of opportunities for meaningful youth engagement and creating new avenues for participation.

Amapola’s experience shows that Integrity Pacts can provide a stimulating environment for citizen engagement and that the effort put into it pays off.