Transparency only tender fix

One of the ironies of the recent events in Parliament is that a bigger issue about public policy and the tendering of Government contracts has been lost at the centre of a political controversy. 

Tendering contracts in Samoa has long been the subject of public scrutiny, speculation and outcry.  

The Government has responded accordingly, with new regulations, technical advice, documentation and tender requirements required to be met before contracts are awarded.

But nothing seems to change. 

But for all of this, we are still witnessing massive shortcomings of the tendering process in this country - and this is by the Government’s own admission.

This is not conjecture. This is the Government’s own conclusion. 

The release of an Ethics and Privileges Committee Report about a $300,000 generator set off a political firestorm when it censured M.P. La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Polataivao for presenting Parliament with inaccurate information.

La’auli, of course, was railing about the cost of a generator of such power and said it compared unfavourably to one of the same size he had purchased himself; information that, the Committee found, had been exaggerated and could not be substantiated. 

But as much time as was spent censuring La’auli for making a false comparison to his own generator - which was smaller than he had first claimed - the Committee document was also an indictment on Government tendering, one that spanned across three Ministries.

The Ministry of Prisons and Rehabilitation sought no technical advice about what kind of generator might be adequate to serve as a backup generator for the Tanumala prison.

But despite being unsure, the Ministry moved ahead with a search for a $300,000 200 KVA-sized generator.

They acted hastily, the Parliamentary Committee found, even though a large sum of public money was at place.

They were abetted in this carelessness, the Committee found, by none other than the Finance Ministry, the organisation to which we entrust responsibility for the nation’s financial health. 

The Tenders Board rejected all bids submitted on time for the project because they were simply incomplete and made no provisions for extra costs such as installation or testing.

Instead, the Ministry chose to accept $300,000 as a reasonable price for a generator on the basis of a third bid that was submitted after the tender process was closed.

It took this newspaper 15 minutes last week to ascertain that the market rate for top-of-the-line generators from Australian and New Zealand vendors for generators of this capacity ranged between about $70,000 to $80,000.

It was reported last week that the $300,000 tender was never awarded.

In fact, a new analysis by an electrical engineer suggested the Prisons Ministry’s request was nearly double the capacity required for the job.

The whole job was re-tendered earlier this year.

But it was only by dint of a quirky turn in Samoan politics that this botched bid for a standby generator ever came to receive such attention. 

Almost never will a single tender have its entrails examined so thoroughly by a Parliamentary committee and for incidental reasons.

It was quite by chance that the process of a $300,000 allocation for the Tanumalala generator was analysed so thoroughly; had La’auli not raised the issue it would never have been looked at.

It raises the question - what about all those other tenders?

Technical documentation surrounding Government infrastructure tenders - particularly those funded by overseas donors - are thick as bricks.

So too are the responses companies must provide to have a chance of being awarded the work.

There are clear laws in place about conflicts of interest being guarded against; for impropriety, even perceptions thereof, to be declared immediately, and penalties for any malfeasance.  

But speaking in Kiribati this year it was our Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, who got the issue exactly right when sharing his thoughts on the importance of anti-corruption. 

“There must be good and strong leadership supporting every process level from prevention, investigation, prosecution and right through to adjudication and enforcement of penalties,” our Prime Minister said.

“[But] without this political will at the highest level, anti-corruption efforts would always struggle to succeed.”

Shortcomings in our tender process are not going to be solved by more regulation. 

That is unlikely to change the political will of those who make the decisions to ensure that fiascos such as the $300,000 generator cannot be allowed to occur again.

There is only one realistic antidote to preventing misuse of public money on the scale that was avoided at Tanumala.

That is transparency. Transparency changes political will perhaps faster than anything else.

The media has its role to play in shining a light on instances where the potential egregious awarding of public money can happen. 

So too do industry experts and members of the public even.

But we need more information to identify instances where tender information does not add up.

The Tenders Board already publishes a list of public money that has been awarded every month. 

But these reports are all-too-brief - and out of date. 

For the latest available published awards, in June 2019, more than $3.5 million of taxpayers’ tala were disbursed in public tender processes. 

The size and names of the projects and the winning bidders were disclosed in what amounts to a two-page document.

Since we are dealing with public money, is there any reason the documentation on which these contracts were won and lost should not be disclosed online too?

We should have nothing to fear from more scrutiny, especially if the process observes and respects the principles of transparency and accountability which the Government is so fond of espousing. 

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