The Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM) procurement issue, the Royal Audit Authority pointed out, rings many bells. Auditors might have uncovered irregularities in procuring the scrubber machine, and price disparity, at the CFM, but it is not an isolated case.

Such occurrences are widespread, even if they elude auditors’ scrutiny. The issue today is not so much about the irregularities, but rather procurement issues deeply entrenched in our system. Any purchase by a government agency, a corporate body, or a state-owned enterprise is strictly regulated to ensure there is fairness and transparency. However, from a closer look, these regulations seem to defeat their intended purpose.

Private businesses – suppliers in this case – thrive on government procurement rules. For decades and, even now, we insist on quotations to ensure transparency and perhaps, to avoid collusion. The rule was made when the government was the sole procuring agency, heavily dependent on suppliers or what we may call middlemen.

A lot has changed, but not our procurement system. With advancements in technology and choices abundant, some of our rules are obsolete, some even counterproductive. For instance, government agencies still float quotations for air tickets for an official or a group to travel from Paro-Bangkok and Paro. What we are not realizing is that this system is outdated and expensive. With a credit card, anyone can book a flight from Paro-Singapore-Perth, Australia. It is more reliable if not cheaper. Why should we rely on ticketing agents unless it is for “supporting the private sector.”

Our procurement rules are proving to be more expensive now. Government agencies are paying more for the same service that can be availed at a far better rate and quality. The notion is that when it is a government, corporate or SOE  that is procuring, the price should be higher. Perhaps, this is because it is Zhungi mangul (government fund).

In the private sector, where business owners spend their own money, procurement is not an issue. They get the best rates if not the best quality. They buy from the cheapest without compromising quality. Why can this not be done in the government or public sector? It will save time and money besides improving efficiency.

Why and how we procure should matter. Nobody wants to overpay or endure delays. With the emphasis on cost-cutting and profit maximization, all procuring agencies are prudent with their spending. However, our procurement rules sometimes hinder that. A laptop bought on a cost-sharing basis ( cost borne by the employee and company) is far cheaper when it is left to the employee to choose and buy. The supplier will always charge the Zhung or corporation more to maximise profit.

There is a misconception that the E-procurement system will resolve these issues. This is untrue.

Even the much-touted E-procurement system is not foolproof. We have seen in the recent past how it could be manipulated by procuring agencies themselves to award works or contracts to their people, or in one case, to the procurement officer himself.