To right a wronged system

Ministries, departments, autonomous agencies and local governments were all notified on the independent review body, recently formed by the finance ministry, that will address grievances from suppliers.

This is the latest development in public procurement policy. The grievance cell will consider complaints and terminate procurements if rules have been violated.

This is a good development and a welcome initiative. The seven members on the body represent people from varied backgrounds and relevant agencies including lawyers of the Office of the Attorney General. The body should deter corrupt practices in the procurement field, where millions of the public’s money is spent every year.

We have a strong procurement policy to ensure that there is transparency of government procurement. The policy is also there to ensure economy and efficiency in procuring goods and services besides providing fair and equal access to suppliers.

It is however, safe to surmise that some unwarranted practices are still prevalent and despite the improvement in procurement procedures, complaints are aplenty. Procurement norms may not be violated outright but dealings between the private sector and the government are often suspected to be shady. This is because the profit driven sector is always one step ahead of the government in sidestepping rules.

The government spends millions, even billions of ngultrums every year on procuring goods and services. These may range from high-end machineries to catering services. Flaunting rules and winning the job results in poor services. That is why people are complaining of, for instance, blacktop peeling off newly constructed roads or government buildings needing repair not long after being handed over.

On a smaller scale, yet quite substantive, is purchase of air tickets. The government is probably losing thousands of dollars through the present ticketing system. Recently, an official was taken aback when the lowest quoted ticket to New York from a local ticketing agent was almost double the amount on what was on offer on an online service. The real price including commissions and discounts are available at a click of a button, yet we insist on buying through quotation. Ticketing agents survive on this flaw in the system.

We may have good rules and independent bodies to ensure transparency and prevent collusion or corruption. But those in the private sector will still depend on what the Chinese call Guanxi, roughly meaning networks and influence. Without Guanxi, survival is difficult, they warn. Whether it is procuring goods or services, the chances are higher if connections are extended from family, friends, workmates or through other Guanxi.

No rule is fool proof. It is exploited when officials in position feign ignorance of them. The independent body will be busy only if those genuinely aggrieved raise issues with them. Good business ethics could help solve some problems.

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