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Smarter than systems

Suppliers or bidders are smelling something fishy in the government’s electronic procurement system or e-GP. They claim there are loopholes in the system that was initiated to prevent misuse, malpractices and enhance efficiency and transparency.

In Bhutan, government agencies are the biggest clients with millions of Ngultrums spent on procuring goods and services. Procurement has also been sensitive, controversial if not lucrative for those wanting to get a pie of the profit. It is not often that government agencies are called upon to investigate or inspect goods supplied after winning a tender. However, it does happen when they feel or know something is amiss.

Those who took part in supplying wire mesh or chain-link materials to protect farmers and their crops from wildlife predation are crying foul over the award of the tenders. Accusations vary from manipulating open tenders to materials supplied after winning the bid. It is an accusation that needs immediate attention. Some individuals who know the details fear sharing information with the media.

Beyond the chain-link project worth Nu 174M, procuring agencies had been complaining about the e-GP system. One common complaint is the incomplete information on the e-GP or the duration of tenders left on the system. Like the ones who bid to supply chain-link said, without quantity or volume of the goods required, suppliers would not be able to estimate their cost.  

In many businesses, volume determines rates or profitability.  Without information, many would be left guessing. It is worse, if like some accused, select bidders are privy to detailed information. The transparency is lost even before the tender is floated.

An electronic system alone will not enhance efficiency and transparency. We have seen this before. What matters is how foolproof the system is. If an official sitting behind the computer or system can tweak or manipulate it, no system would prevent manipulation or misuse. The erstwhile information and communication ministry could share some experience of how a procurement officer can cheat the system and award the work to his friends or relatives.

Mistakes in procuring goods and services have a larger impact than just awarding them to the wrong person. It always affects people. If the chain-link supplied, for instance, is not meeting specifications, it will not fend off the elephants and wild boars that destroy crops, property and lives and livelihood. If quality is compromised for profit motives, it is the people who pay the price, whether it is a bridge, farm road or textbooks for students.

The government also depends on services provided by consultancies in decision-making. Poor services result in poorer decision-making. Consultancy is a lucrative business, and we have heard stories of how consultancies write the report before going into the field. We have also had survey reports that could not be shared with the public after spending a significant amount of money.  

The real problem, however, is when officials outsmart systems, and we are still complaining of the same problems in the procurement business even after leveraging technology. The real losers are the people.