In Romania, roads needed to be built in the counties of Vrancea, Ialomita, and Neamt to connect residents to bigger municipalities and provide access to more facilities like hospitals. Starting in 2015, Romania’s National Program for Local Development (PNDL) provided millions of euros for infrastructure projects to improve the living situations in these smaller urban and rural communities.
In 2021—six years after the government approved funding for over 12,000 projects between 2015 and 2019—more than 700 contracts sat idle, some of them with budgets between 10 to 15 million euros.
The slow pace of implementation caught the attention of civil society and journalists who investigate government corruption and lack of transparency. But journalists, including one that the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) interviewed, struggled to find effective ways to access and sort through data about these projects.
“I would usually go on the website and do manual searches and get the data, create my own spreadsheet,” the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns, said. “It took days and days and days.”
At the time, the government didn’t release much information about the projects, like when the construction started and what companies the local governments contracted. Rather, only a list of communities and the name of the project could be found, without a unique identifier.
Historically, clientelism—exchanging services for political support—has corrupted infrastructure projects in Romania, sowing distrust among the public. And PNDL was one of the mechanisms through which central political parties ensured their strength, by providing resources to local officials in exchange for political and electoral loyalty. Expert Forum Romania (EFOR), an IFES partner that promotes government transparency and financial accountability, advocated since the beginning of the program for more transparency and availability of information.
EFOR developed a computer scrape to match the name of the project with the procurement database with the goal of improving access to this information for journalists and the wider public, managing to match about 50 percent of the projects.
“What this proved was our initial theory that there are four or five companies in each county that got more money, up to 60 percent of the contracted value,” Septimius Parvu, a governance expert at EFOR, said. “We proved that most of these companies are either politically owned or connected or some of them were investigated or convicted for economic criminal acts.”
The next step in the program that began in 2022, a multi-annual public investment project called the Anghel Saligny program, caused a rift between the main partners of the Romanian ruling coalition in September 2021, criticized for a lack of transparency.
EFOR’s reports released in 2021 and 2022 made it clear that local governments lacked the capacity and knowledge to fulfill the obligations bestowed from the PNDL funds, while also favoring a small number of companies to contract. EFOR also released interactive maps which allow any stakeholder to search for their communities and the lists of investments approved and implemented.
After the release of the reports and as part of an Open Government Partnership commitment proposed by the organization, EFOR requested that the Ministry of Development hold a public debate to discuss how the program could be improved.
In December 2022, because of these debates and discussions, the government published more data about these programs. Among data published for the Anghel Saligny program, the ministry included contracted companies or the level of implementation of projects.
“It was very difficult [at first] to find someone to talk to,” Septimius said. “Now we are collaborating with the most technical people, which helps a lot. Institutions are usually reluctant to make such changes, but I think in this case, people pushed for this.”
The journalist can now easily track these projects, thanks to the interactive maps that EFOR created in October 2022 regarding the new Saligny Program, with data from each county to capture and visualize how the funds are being allocated.
“When I know there is somebody watching these funds, who is looking at them and tries to see the irregularities and where the money goes, I find myself relieved because I know my taxes are safe, at the personal level,” he said. “As a reporter, it’s all about how helpful it is.”
EFOR is a partner under the Effective Combat Against Corruption (ECAC) project, a U.S. Department of State-funded program implemented by IFES and the CEELI Institute that works in five Balkan countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Romania, and Montenegro). The project empowers local civil-society actors to identify gaps in the implementation of international and regional anti-corruption standards and execute action plans to address them. EFOR’s extraordinary work with local development funds is a key achievement of the ECAC project.