National Review

In the Dark

Why is govt failing to reveal contract awards?

The House of Assembly has been adjourned to September 14 as members of Parliament have gone on their traditional summer break.

This will mean that a year and a half after the Public Procurement Bill was passed and a full year since it was enacted, the government remains in violation of the law, which is intended to provide transparency and accountability in the award of public contracts.

The legislation established a modern legal framework for government procurement to ensure fairness and value for money, promote efficiency, cut back on government waste and discourage corruption in contract awards.

This is a matter we have written on extensively in the past, precisely because taxpayers should be reminded that notwithstanding the lip service the Davis administration pays to transparency and good governance, it is blatantly in violation of legislation that seeks to ensure just that, and it seemingly has no sense of urgency in bringing amendments to the legislation it claimed it was drafting.

Why should it? After all, the act goes at the heart of a system of political patronage which we suspect few politicians are anxious to dismantle anytime soon.

It is an open secret that contracts have been used by parties in office to award supporters.

This is a total recipe for graft, theft and waste.

In the Speech from the Throne last October, the Davis administration pledged to amend the Public Procurement Act “to strengthen provisions for Bahamian participation in government procurement at all levels”.

It was also a commitment made in the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) “Our Blueprint for Change” prior to the general election of September 16, 2021.

In the 2021/2022 supplementary budget, introduced in Parliament last October, Prime Minister Philip Davis pledged, “We will increase the proportion of government expenditure allocated to small and medium businesses by amending the Procurement Act to protect local businesses against unfair competition.”

Davis said additional measures will be introduced to “strengthen fiscal credibility and enhance accountability, transparency and integrity”.

Though the Progressive Liberal Party in opposition voted for the Public Procurement Bill, the prime minister said the act, along with the Public Finance Management Act, the Public Debt Management Act, and the Fiscal Responsibility Act will all be amended.

“There are no regulations for any of the legislation recently passed,” Davis said last October.

“There are no procedural manuals, and internal processes have ground to a halt and legal opinions have to be sought constantly for what used to be ordinary, everyday transactions.

“For example, if one were to interpret the Public Procurement Act literally, the Royal Bahamas Police Force could now take a minimum of seven days to buy replacement tires for their patrol vehicles.

“This is what happens when fundamental legislation is rushed and put into place without due care and attention.”

Nine months on, the promised amendments have not been introduced.

Blaming the Minnis administration for sloppy legislation can no longer fly.

The Davis administration’s noncompliance with the law comes months after the Progressive Liberal Party in opposition, led by Davis, excoriated the Minnis administration for its failure to submit to Parliament a report on the details of the expenditure, suppliers for the goods and services procured and the reasons those suppliers were chosen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing then prime minister Minnis in January 2021, Davis charged: “You are in breach of the law, sir. Why? What do you not want the Bahamian people to know about how you are operating behind closed doors?

“Which expenditures and which suppliers are so controversial that he cannot disclose them to the public, as he is so required? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Every promise ever made to the Bahamian people about accountability is sitting in the dustbin.”

Speaking last August, Davis said, “The greater the lengths they go to [to] hide their spending on contracts, the more suspicious the public is.”

Hypocrisy

Upon coming to office, Davis and members of his Cabinet set about lifting the lid on the secret dealings of their predecessors in office.

Davis took aim at the National Food Distribution Task Force, alleging with great fervor that there was corruption and wastage in the expenditure of $54 million spent on the program that was in place during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic when much of the economy was shut down and thousands of Bahamians were out of work.

Davis and the PLP also sounded the alarm on the award of contracts by the Bahamas Public Parks and Public Beaches Authority.

In March 2022, McKell Bonaby, the authority’s executive chairman, said in the House of Assembly that multiple sweeping contracts issued by the authority under the Minnis administration topped $76,000 a month.

“Sweeping contracts had sweeping irregularities,” said Bonaby, adding that there had been no checks and balances in contracts awarded by the authority.

He called the situation “alarming”.

While the Davis administration repeatedly pointed to the lack of transparency surrounding the award of contracts at the authority under the former administration, it has not changed this practice.

Just last week, Bonaby told reporters that the authority has issued new contracts. He was, however, mum when asked for details on those new contracts, though he called the award of contracts “very good news”.

Bonaby ought to explain how the contractors were selected, who the contractors are and the amount of the contracts.

After all, it is the law.

The Public Procurement Act mandates that public bodies like the authority publish guidelines on an official website of the public bodies and the electronic procurement system or other website as may be approved by the chief procurement officer.

Among other obligations, public bodies are required to ensure that guidelines for the procurement for goods, works and services are competitive, non-discriminatory and safeguarded by appropriate standards of transparency; utilize the electronic procurement system or other system approved by the Public Procurement Department; publish a notice of the award of the procurement contract for all goods, works and services valued over $25,000 on the website of the public bodies and on the electronic procurement system and in at least one newspaper published and in general circulation in The Bahamas within 60 days of the award of the procurement contract.

But searches of the public eProcurement and Supplier Registry Portal continue to reveal a blatant disregard for the law by some government departments and agencies.

Section 15 of the act provides for the establishment of the Public Procurement Board, which is intended to address corruption and eliminate political 

interference in contract awards.

But has this board even been appointed?

The Davis administration ought to recognize that the law is the law until the law is changed.

Modern procurement practices are critical for modern societies.

In the US, federal, state and municipal governments have been moving to positions where contract details are proactively published online to promote transparency and mitigate against corruption.

Because the state entities have these details, it is extremely simple and straightforward to publish the summary details online or in the newspapers.

It allows other bidders, analysts, government watchdogs, the media and the general public to know where and how public funds are being spent.

The International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce noted on its website last September that in The Bahamas, a range of procurement processes is used throughout the public service with little standardization.

It pointed out that both US and domestic investors have cited a lack of transparency in government procurement processes.

“There are instances of no-bid contracts and other arrangements made without the benefit of public engagement or advertising,” the trade administration observed.

Chronic

Given that the House is not scheduled to meet for another few weeks, our expectation is that the Davis administration will remain in violation of the law.

Under the Davis-led PLP administration, access to the prime minister and public officials has increased considerably, but that is only one aspect of transparency.

We understand that it is not in the interest of certain individuals that the Davis administration picks up the pace in following the law.

Shining the light on how public money is being spent could mean messing with the money of those operating in the dark with the government’s cover.

But taxpayers should constantly be reminded, and politicians, too, that those politicians are not spending their money, but ours.

They ought not pretend to be disgusted by secretive procurement practices of their predecessors, but turn a blind eye to calls for them to practice what they preach.

Unless we continue to shine a light on this issue, corruption and wastage would likely remain a chronic problem in government.

While we are on the topic of transparency, the public should pay attention to the slow roll out of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

More than a year after the FOIA office was opened and an information commissioner and deputy commissioner appointed, the public is still at this point unable to make requests for public information to government agencies under the act.

The “go live” dates for the pilot FOIA agencies should be announced without delay along with the reasonable timelines to bring all agencies on stream.

The information commissioner should update the public at least monthly on progress being made.

We say, too, that the government must now realize that the Public Finance Management Act requires substantial additional non-financial reporting on agency performance and sets firm deadlines on the publication of annual audits.

These are important matters in the quest for good governance.

Discerning members of the public ought not be blinded by the lingering angst toward Minnis and the Minnis administration.

Davis and the PLP in government should not get a pass on these critical issues of transparency and accountability.

Taxpayers should demand to know how their money is being spent and why.

They should demand a fair and transparent procurement process, and full transparency in the handling of public affairs.

They should not depend on politicians to do the right thing without being prodded. We have seen far too many examples where unless they are pressured to act, our leaders are content for the status quo to maintain.

At what point do we demand better?

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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