Monday, February 19, 2018

Toward urgent end of procurement humbug

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Mark Fraser

The vexed question of public procurement, having once again come to the forefront, was at one point last week actually at the top of the parliamentary agenda. The Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill saw its big moment in the Senate last Tuesday, with Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development Bhoe Tewarie in the pilot’s role.

More immediately sensational events have since claimed higher public attention and concern. Experience teaches, however, that the procurement question will not go away.

Despite the hard-sell efforts by Dr Tewarie, the Senate proceedings offered no certainty of the Bill’s timely enactment. Procurement, that is to say, the expenditure of taxpayer funds reaching into the billions, has long been a matter of aggravated national discourse.

Stressing the time and effort that went into the legislative package going forward in his name, the Minister noted that procurement reform had been the subject of far more talk and anxiety than of corrective action. It was in 1993 that the Central Tenders Board Act last saw amendment. The Act itself had first been passed in 1961.

The present heavyweight measure provides for a new independent national agency, with powers of oversight, rule-making, investigation and enforcement, and severe penalties for violations. Dr Tewarie cited the research and consultations that preceded the Bill—the 2005 White Paper; the Uff Report; the Joint Select Committee sittings; World Bank and IDB advice; and meetings with Jamaica’s contractor general.

Still, the Minister apparently understated the need of three-fifths majority support for passage in the House and Senate. Of this he was promptly reminded by PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi, who then elaborately critiqued the Bill as “sloppily drafted”, and promised, for committee stage, numerous amendments of his own. In short, even though corruption allegations and suspicions bedevil present procurement arrangements, and “civil society” responses are still to be heard, no early upgrades are promised for this sore area of public business.

The stalling of progress is likely to get worse before it gets better. Even before the latest succession of scandals engulfing the People’s Partnership administration, confidence in the Government was “very low at 27 per cent”, the Express-sponsored Solution by Simulation pollster found.

Certainly, the need to achieve what Senator Al-Rawi calls “good law” is not in question. Indeed, all Government projects will understandably now be subjected to sceptical scrutiny and even perverse obstruction. In some way, however, urgency must be acknowledged on all sides to bring an end to the long years of finger-pointing and marking time, and to start, at long last, a progressive new era in public procurement.