Op-Ed

Public procurement in The Bahamas pre-election, pt. 2

“One must talk less about transparency but rather strive to be transparent.”

In my last article, I neglected to define what public procurement is. Public procurement refers to the purchase by governments and state-owned enterprises of goods, services and works. As public procurement accounts for a substantial portion of the taxpayers’ money, governments are expected to carry it out efficiently and with high standards of conduct in order to ensure high quality of service delivery and safeguard the public interest.

Last week, I touched briefly on the e-procurement system known as the e-Procurement Supplier Registry. This system is vital to the activities and goals of the Public Procurement Bill as it was designed to bring greater efficiencies and transparency to the government procurement process with all contracts across all agencies to be requisitioned and sourced online.

This system is the most vital element to the procurement act’s effectiveness.

An economic and financing analysis study done by the Inter-American Bank (IDB) from 2015 to 2019 over a period of one year, states that if a procurement officer was to conduct 60 tendering processes within a year using the system to evaluate bids, the government could save approximately $394,163 per hour.

Can you imagine the savings if every government agency would do so? The government would have no need to borrow billions of dollars.

Last Wednesday, during his budget debate contribution, Education Minister Jeff Lloyd practically bragged that nearly $40 million was spent by the government on school repairs and that an additional $20 million will be added for its continuation.

Were these tendered on the e-Procurement Supplier Registry or the print media? Of course, the answer is no. Who were these contractors?

These situations remind me of the lyrics of Harold Melvin’s song “Wake up Everybody.”

However, the government should be congratulated for mandating the use of the e-Procurement Supplier Registry.

I wish to thank the three hard working e-Procurement Help Desk representatives who provide support and have trained hundreds of vendors and buyers on the use of the system. However, despite their hard work, their salaries are still that of minimum wage and after five years they are still not permanent and pensionable. What a shame.

The e-procurement system, unfortunately, is now in danger of losing its true intent and value. Why?

• The employment of a local IT system development manager was critical for the future development of the system, and the public financial reform. Project leadership was warned that it was not wise to have an international consultant residing in Cambodia acting as a systems administrator. They failed to take this advice. Hence, there is no dedicated systems administrator assigned to manage its day-to-day operations, further exasperating other issues.

• One of the most important issues is that the functionality of the system is presently not aligned with certain aspects of the Public Procurement Bill, as the Ministry of Finance has not even engaged in any discussion with the developers. This process or change to the system would take up to five months to complete.

• The training site designed to train government purchasing officers has been non-operational since March, so training was halted. This will have a devastating effect on the government’s goal to have all agencies utilize the system by September, plus the training site has to also be aligned with the bill; any training at this time would be useless without the alignment.

• The Public Hospitals Authority is requesting integration to its systems to avoid duplication of efforts.

• Connectivity to Inland Revenue and NIB systems needs to be established to have automatic details of vendors status.

It is my understanding that the Ministry of Finance is scrambling like a chicken being chased by a cat to form a committee of seven to 10 persons to out these fires. The problem is that there is not one qualified or certified public procurement specialist on the committee, coupled with the fact that the two procurement consultants with the institutional knowledge and professional experience are no longer there as well, making it very difficult for these fires to be extinguished.

Let us look at the Public Financial Management Project Implementation Unit responsible for the reform activities. This office was established in 2017 and had a staff complement of 10 persons and four component coordinators one for each reform activity and those areas are:

• Performance monitoring;

• National statistics;

• Public financial management;

• Public procurement system.

One of the main purposes of this office was to manage this $33 million reform budget, a loan from the IDB, and to provide the necessary resources to the above-mentioned coordinators.

The Public Financial Management Project Implementation Unit due to poor leadership, personal bias, the disregard for the professional component coordinators and being diagnosed with the friends, family and lovers political syndrome is partly responsible for some of the setbacks of the e-Procurement Supplier Registry.

The unit has suffered major setbacks as well, with a remaining one and a half year left to completion.

Many staff members left because of the toxic environment or were terminated. To date, there is but one component coordinator left and two full-time staff. 

An international procurement consultant employed by the government of The Bahamas stated in his final report: “The fast turnaround of the PFM/PMR Project PIU’s procurement specialist position and the procurement priorities determined by the project manager not always in synchrony with the strategic plan and consultant’s recommendations have also hindered the implementation of Component IV activities.

“These two factors have caused delay or cancelation of key Component IV activities or support activities.” This statement is powerful yet the ministry failed to act.

It is in the best interest of the Ministry of Finance to salvage what activities are left to complete the procurement reform and assign it to a qualified local procurement consultant to coordinate its completion.

In concluding this two-part article, I am publicly calling upon the Inter-American Development Bank and the auditor general of The Bahamas to conduct a forensic audit of the management and operations of the Public Financial Reform Implementation Unit to ensure that this office operated appropriately, according to the rules of the loan and in the best interest of the people of The Bahamas because the government appears to be bewitched with the advice of family, friends and lovers.

• Daniel Ferguson, MCIPS, is retired chief petty officer, RBDF; lead investigator, 2004 Lorequin Commission of Inquiry; a former procurement officer of the Ministry Health and Ministry of Finance and former component coordinator for the IDB-sponsored Public Financial Management Reform Project, in particular the Public Procurement Reform. He led the drafting team for the development of the Public Procurement Bill 2021, Public Procurement Regulations, assisted with the creation of the University of the Bahamas professional procurement officers training framework and managed the development of the e-Procurement Supplier Registry. He is a chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, with over 25 years of experience in public procurement. He was the Caribbean’s representative to the International Network of Public Procurement Officers for the years 2019-2021, a network supported by the Organization of American States, Caribbean Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

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