Don't relax procurement rules
Byron Buckley, Contributor
IN THE lead-up to the December 2011 general election, the Jamaica Labour Party government was rocked by controversy surrounding the implementation of the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP). There were charges of irregularity and lack of transparency, championed by the Opposition People's National Party and alluded to by the auditor general, as well as the Office of Contractor General (OCG).
Against this background, it was surprising to hear comments in Parliament last week by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips and his opposition counterpart, Audley Shaw, suggesting that the government procurement rules are hampering the expediting of the business of State. Wittingly or unwittingly, this viewpoint could be paving the way for the relaxation of Jamaica's procurement regulatory system. This is alarming, especially since the shadow finance minister, who the public expects to be its watchdog, appears to be of the same mind as his successor.
The so-called honeymoon period in the life of a new administration is when members of the public take their eyes off the ball, allowing the horses of anti-accountability/anti-transparency to bolt from the barn, if I may mix metaphors.
It is important, and smart, to insist on anti-corruption practices at the outset of an administration, rather than trying to catch the bolting horse. It makes little sense to attempt to catch the runaway expenditure and procedural infractions of JDIP two years into its implementation.
With the new administration champing at the bit to get its much-talked-about JEEP (Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme) going, taxpayers must be vigilant that the rules governing the procurement of goods and services/works are not flouted or relaxed. The OCG is, therefore, on target with its quick draw to the Simpson Miller administration, warning that the anti-corruption agency will be ensuring that JEEP stays on track with regard to Jamaica's procurement regulatory system.
In reaction to the strictures expressed by Phillips and Shaw, the OCG has noted that the procurement rules, which were comprehensively revised in January 2011, "provide ample room and flexibility for emergency and direct contracting, as well as for relaxed procedures and reduced rigidity in instances of low-value procurements". Indeed, the OCG believes some public bodies have imposed strictures on themselves by not affording adequate time to carry out procurement procedures.
I grant critics that there is room for some level of procurement autonomy by semi-autonomous agencies such as the University of Technology, Jamaica. That apart, rather than contemplating the relaxation of government procurement rules, the new administration needs to follow through on promises it made during the election campaign to lick corruption when it assumes power. During the December 20, 2011 National Leadership Debate, then Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller said:
"I am very strong ... in terms of fighting corruption and will not tolerate any form of corruption in a People's National Party government, and that's why when I'm returned to power, as prime minister, I will ensure the strengthening of these institutions, like Office of the Contractor General, and all the institutions having to investigate corruption and deal with (acts of) corruption when they are reported ... . I will be very firm and strong on corruption. I do not believe that we should allow anyone to corrupt the system of government."
On December 9, 2011, on International Anti-Corruption Day, Dr Phillips, speaking on behalf of the then leader of the Opposition at the launch of the National Integrity Action Limited, gave the undertaking "to amalgamate the Office of the Contractor General, the Corruption Prevention Commission, the Parliamentary Integrity Commission, and to provide such an institution with the appropriate investigative powers and with the ability to directly undertake prosecutions with an appropriate relationship with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions."
The Simpson Miller administration needs to lay out a timetable to implement the reform and strengthening of the Government's contract-awarding and management system. There is the immediate matter of tidying up the JDIP and Palisadoes roadwork projects to achieve the following objectives set out by the OCG:
Government, through its implementing agencies, should ensure that the selection of JDIP subcontractors is subject to an OCG-supervised competitive tender process to facilitate the office's ability to better scrutinise the particulars of all such subcontracts and to secure competition, transparency and value for money in the contracts-award process.
All tributary contracts that are awarded by JDIP subcontractors must be awarded to only National Contracts Commission (NCC) registered contractors.
Implementing agencies must ensure that, as part of their evaluation process, and particularly prior to the award of each subcontract, a determination is made as to each contractor's capacity to undertake the works, which will insulate JDIP against the potential for poor quality of work, cost and time overruns.
In an effort to secure value for money, the implementing agencies must develop a fully informed comparable estimate that is based upon existing market rates for use in competitive tendering.
Immediate engagement of an independent consultant to discharge the key monitoring, auditing and reporting functions that should be associated with a programme of the magnitude of the JDIP. The independent consultant's primary objective should be to secure and ensure value for money on every project that is implemented under JDIP.
Sticking out for accountability is not merely for moral/ethical fulfilment. There is a cost to the State and taxpayers. Everybody loses in the long run. According to anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, the cost of corruption in public contracting, expressed as a percentage of the value of the contract, ranges from an average of 10 to 25 per cent, and as much as 50 per cent in the worst cases. Based on 2009 figures, Jamaica spent more than $90 billion in the procurement of government goods, works and services. Do the maths!
There is also the cost to society in terms of little value for money spent as manifested in shoddy workmanship, which require additional expenditure.
In addition to implementing the short-term reform measures to the JDIP, the Simpson Miller administration should consider favourably a number of recommendations Contractor General Greg Christie has been making over time. Top among these is the establishment of a national anti-corruption agency by merging several government watchdog agencies, as Peter Phillips said last December that a PNP administration would do.
As former Prime Minister Bruce Golding noted in his inaugural address: "Corruption in Jamaica is much too easy, too risk-free. We are going to make it more difficult, more hazardous, with stiff penalties for violations. We intend to ... impose criminal sanctions for breaches of the rules governing the award of government contracts, establish a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute persons involved in corruption, and enact legislation for the impeachment and removal from office of public officials guilty of misconduct, corruption, abuse of authority or betrayal of public trust."
Prime Minister Simpson Miller must pick up from where Mr Golding left off (or did not start). She must resist any temptation by either her parliamentary or Cabinet colleagues to relax accountability and transparency requirements in governance. Even if her administration does not introduce legislative reform to the Contractor General Act in the short term, Mrs Simpson Miller should introduce stiff administrative penalties to erring public servants.
In addition, her administration should initiate the reform of the libel laws to give the media more power to shine the spotlight on corrupt public officials.
Byron Buckley is an associate editor at The Gleaner. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.