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Still not ready to fight BOBOL, BRIBERY

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Where are we with operationalisation of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act?

I get the impression that more than a year after the act was assented to, a lot of work still needs to be done.

Perhaps a more pointed question should be asked: why is it taking so long to get everything fully in place?

Remember that this very important legislation took more than five years and two political administrations before it became law. It was partially proclaimed during the tenure of the People’s Partnership in July 2015. Amendments were introduced to Parliament by the current People’s National Movement (PNM) administration, piloted through the Upper and Lower Houses by Finance Minister Colm Imbert, with final passage on March 3, 2017. The act was assented to by the President on March 13, 2017.

More than a year later this law—which in my view is a critical tool for eradicating corruption in the public sector—is still not fully implemented.

I happened to be part of an online exchange on the whole issue of corruption—in response to the focus of last week’s BG View—during which information about the current state of the Office of Procurement Regulation (OPR) came up. My sources tell me it is not yet fully functional, so we’re still moving at snail’s pace on this very crucial matter.

As one of his last official acts, outgoing President Anthony Carmona appointed the board of directors for the OPR. However, that was in March and it was only about a fortnight ago that advertisements were posted for staff.

That isn’t all. Operational regulations for the OPR still need to be finalised before submission for parliamentary approval and there are many administrative details still being sorted out: outfitting offices, installing telephones, printing letterheads and even purchasing vehicles.

If this proceeds at the normal pace of the public sector, it could be a few more months before systems are fully in place to put into effect this new, vitally important system of public procurement which is long overdue.

The thing is, when this legislation was making its way through Parliament, the signals from the Government was that it was an important piece of legislation which needed to go into force quickly.

When he would up the debate in the Senate, Imbert underscored the importance of appointing the regulator. In fact, he described that one step as “very, very important” in terms of the tenure of the person appointed to the position and the terms and conditions of engagement.

He told the Upper House: “We are virtually complete with the proposed compensation package and we need to fix this issue before the President can proceed to complete this exercise.

“This procurement legislation is very, very important. It was the subject of deliberations by this Parliament for five years actually, and in order to meet our deadline of implementation in 2017, we need to resolve this issue of establishing the term of the regulator at five years, rather than seven years.”

Based on the minister’s own words, the 2017 deadline for implementation is now long past. We are now almost halfway through 2018 and systems for a fully functional public procurement regime in this country not yet in place.

Am I the only one completely flabbergasted by the lack of urgency in dealing with this critical matter? Why can’t we be more serious about matter like this which could help put a stop to rampant corruption?

Before the recent passage of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act, such matters were governed by the 1961 legislation for establishment of the Central Tenders Board—introducing a procurement regime that is now archaic and terribly flawed.

I don’t think it is necessary to underscore the importance of public procurement which has to do with the purchase of goods, works or services by public institutions. Unless properly regulated, the process can be very vulnerable to integrity risks where undue influence, conflicts of interest and fraud can occur.

No need to remind law abiding citizens how much we have been hurt over many years by bobol and bribery involving well-placed public officers who found it all too easy to plunder the Treasury.

Over the years, there have been too many claims of bid-rigging, complaints about contracts being awarded on the basis of proposals, rather than tenders and other questionable arrangements, often resulting in millions of dollars in public funds being spend with little to show for it.

The act is the first opportunity in T&T for transparency in tendering and awarding of contracts. The hope is that will a fully functioning OPR, a long last there will be efficiency and accountability in the use of taxpayers’ money, which can have a positive effect on the economy.

Public procurement regulation, as valuable as it is for fight corruption considerations, is important for many other reasons, including creating a competitive process in the public sector which ensures we get best value for taxpayers’ money.

With this new system, a structured competitive process should ensure the country gets best quality at the lowest price in the purchasing of goods, services and works.

Now that the Central Tenders Board Act, Chap. 71:91 has been repealed and replaced with the new law, a new framework has been established, based on the principles of good governance, with accountability, transparency, integrity and value for money.

The act brings all bodies spending public money under a single regulatory framework covering all stages of the procurement process.

However, a critical aspect of the system is the OPR, headed by the procurement regulator and managed by a board, which is responsible for oversight and control. The OPR is empowered to conduct audits and periodic inspection of public bodies and issue directions to them.

There are severe penalties for procurement of goods, works or services or retention or disposal of public property that is not done in accordance with the Act shall be void and illegal. Breaches could result, on summary conviction, in imposition of a $100,000.

The OPR will have the power to investigate alleged breaches of the act and make reports to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The regulator is required to submit annual reports to Parliament, with information on the total number and value of contracts awarded by public bodies, the number of unfulfilled procurement contracts, and bodies that have failed to comply with the act.

This is the level of transparency and scrutiny needed in this country. It’s time to step up the pace and ensure on this very critical matter we don’t fall into the trap of delayed enforcement or failure to enforce.


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