Cronyism and all that . . !

Imagine ThatIf we believe a thing to be bad, and if we have a right to prevent it, it is our duty to try to prevent it and damn the consequences.

–– Lord Milner.

Far too often we hear Barbados is better than this or that Caribbean country. Whether or not it is, is irrelevant. I have never determined what I should be, what I am or what I will become on the basis of how bad my neigbours or colleagues are, what my neighbours or colleagues ought to be, or what my neighbours or colleagues will become.

That is not the standard on which we should judge ourselves. Instead, for me, what is important is being the best that is possible under certain circumstances –– even when others are doing far worse than I am.

With that in mind, whether or not Barbados is doing better than other Caribbean countries ought not to be the yardstick by which we determine whether or not much more needs to be done to correct perceived or real gaps in the national integrity system.

According to the World Bank, corruption, is “the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development”, and its harmful effects are especially severe on the poor, precisely because it is the poor who are hardest hit by economic decline; it is the poor who are most reliant on the provision of public services; and it is the poor who are least capable of paying the extra costs associated with bribery, fraud and the misappropriation of resources by public officials.

I am not too familiar with procurement processes of Government, but I do know sufficient to appreciate the need for integrity and transparency, and to obtain the best value for the Government, whether it is in the delivery of services to the citizens, the purchasing of goods and services and the award of contracts for major infrastructural and other works.

Only  . That it came to light is as important as the fact it was possible to take place.

At a time when scandals, indictments and charges of cronyism are rearing their ugly heads throughout the Caribbean, is it not time for governments to take appropriate action to ensure the potential for such abuses as no bid contracts is restricted and when it does occur, it is not only exposed but the culprits are publicly identified and appropriately punished?

Would such action not protect the taxpayers from fraud and incompetence?

We are told certain “estimable” gentlemen are friends of powerful politicians, and on that basis they will not be “disowned”. But that is another story one which will take us to the heart of the private sector and the national integrity system. The fact is incentives inherent in the relationship between private construction companies and the governments they regularly contract with to undertake large-scale projects such as road building, housing communities, schools, government offices, other large edifices and so on, as well as the provision of important public services, invite covert and overt side deals. Typically, the transactions appear to follow best practices of tendering; and the winning bid/bidder is awarded with a contract.

But sometimes the public is caught by surprise by either a high paid public commission of inquiry or some litigation, all of which cost the government, and therefore taxpayers, money.

Yes, public commissions have succeeded in exposing the collusion underlying the tendering process where sometimes honest, elected and appointed officials working alongside corrupt ones may be totally unaware of these practices or, are suspicious but unable to confirm their suspicions.

But before we assess the contracting process, there is the decision to buy goods and services. And even that decision must be scrutinized. For the contract award process is generally initiated with the decision that certain goods or services are needed, the quantity required and a justification for the need of the good or service. Indeed, in several jurisdictions, evidence shows there have been instances when procurement officials have ordered goods and supplies which have been determined to be obsolete, of questionable quality, or purchased at a cost considerably higher than what the market suggests. Additionally, there have been other instances where employees have over-ordered, resulting in a glut of these particular goods and supplies which could be diverted more easily without the minimum possibility of detection.

Critics of the government procurement process have argued that the determination of the specifics for inviting a tender for goods and services is fraught with danger. For it is in that act that potential bidders are alerted to what the government wants and gives the procurement officials the basis on which they will accept bids.

Clearly a well-written specification will show what the procuring agency wants and is entitled to. They argue that this is the step in the procurement process where collusion between the procurement official and contractor is most likely to occur. Why?

If specifications are written vaguely, they allow the vendor/contractor to later claim entitlement to additional money to supply the agency with what it originally intended to receive.

In the submission of the bid, there may occur collusion as well. In this case the Picarco Airport construction scandal in Trinidad and Tobago is revealing as the Robert Lindquist forensic audit shows. In that case, there were numerous anti-competitive agreements found to be harmful to the procurement process.

These included, price fixing and bid rigging which allowed the predesignated winner to be awarded the contract. All of which was costly to the government and ultimately to the taxpayer.

But integrity in the procurement and contracting system can also be manipulated just as easily after an award has been granted as during any of the steps before the award is finalized. It is therefore imperative that the contracting government agency or department is vigilant while managing the contract to ensure it receives exactly what was intended through the contract.

This is a global phenomenon and not confined to the Commonwealth Caribbean. We need to foster best practice and engage in strategies and actions that will ensure greater transparency and accountability. This perhaps could be facilitated with the creation of a contractor general office that would, among other things, investigate contracting practices ranging from the disbursement and awarding of contracts to the legal frameworks governing accountability and good practices in that sector.

Thirdly, the discretion which public officials enjoy needs to be subjected to greater veto points which will reduce the possibility of such manipulation and abuse.

I make no attempt to be original here in recommending the establishment of the office of the contractor general. Indeed I would wish everyone reading this column recognize the unoriginality of the suggestion. But with respect to the office of the contractor general, to date only two Commonwealth Caribbean countries have made provisions for this office. 
These are Jamaica and Belize.

Under the Contractor General Act of Belize, for example, the contractor general is guaranteed some independence, given that the person is appointed by the governor general, acting on the recommendation of both houses of the national assembly and not on the advice of the prime minister. Moreover, under the act, the contractor general is not subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority, and no proceedings of the contractor general can be called into question in any court of law. The act provides that for the purpose of an investigation, the contractor general has the same powers as a judge of the Supreme Court and can order witnesses to attend, and produce documents.

The 2000 act empowers the contractor general to monitor the award, implementation of public contracts, and investigation where necessary to ensure such contracts are awarded impartially and on merit; that the circumstances in which each contract is awarded or, as the case may be, terminated, do not involve any impropriety or irregularity; that the implementation of each such contract conforms to the terms thereof; that there is no fraud, corruption, mismanagement, waste or abuse in the awarding of contracts by a public body.

One of the major deficiencies of the act, however, is that the contractor general is not given any power to prosecute, but can only recommend forward to Parliament, the relevant agency or the office of the director of public prosecution.

Is establishing the office of the contractor general sufficient? Clearly not! Should it be necessary? Absolutely! It is an important institution in the accountability process. What is at stake? Government should always depend on open, arms-length, competitive procurements to ensure it spends the public’s money wisely and honestly.

Identifying instances of fraud, the potential for fraud against government in the procurement process, inefficiencies of delivery in the contract itself on the part of the contractor cannot be achieved in isolation.

This is precisely why we need the various pillars of the NIS, including the media, the police and civil society to function effectively. Can watchdog agencies and whistleblowing legislation also assist in this regard? I will certainly turn my gaze to these in the future.

Fixing problems do not always require designing elaborate new agencies or policies, nor does the cost necessarily have to exceed that of maintaining current systems. The solution to the obvious problems is not to retreat in the pompous realm of paucity of thinking that corruption is not a serious problem in Barbados. Should we await a catastrophe and then react? Please!

Those who are called to lead ought not to hesitate to become active as foremen of a better future.

Until next week, let’s reflect and do the right thing!

(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the
West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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