Public procurement is one of the government activities most vulnerable to corruption. Although, there are very well-defined standards to reduce the risk of corruption, their application needs to be meticulous and backed by a robust political will to give taxpayers the best value for their money.
The Public Contracts Review Board has oversight responsibilities for the public procurement process. It has enough clout to reverse decisions made by selection boards that adjudicate the various contracts issued through the public tendering system. The publication of the 2018 report by the board has, once again, produced evidence of the integrity failures of public procurement. Last year, three out of every five appeals filed with the Public Contracts Review Board were upheld – a 30 per cent increase in the number of appeals. What is even more worrying is that there was an “alarming increase” in pre-contractual appeals filed before the tendering period closed. The notorious St Vincent De Paul Residence catering contract, which was tainted with allegations of unfair changes in the conditions after the call for tenders was already published, is just one case that raised serious doubts about the competence and good faith of those responsible for administering the system. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna downplayed the seriousness of the threats that undermine trust in public procurement by saying that failures giving rise to so many appeals to the board are the result of lack of adequate training for staff involved in the process and underqualified members of selection boards.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development insists that public procurement systems must be hardwired with elements of integrity, transparency, stakeholder participation, accessibility and oversight and control. A system that lacks integrity reflects poor governance and, contrary to what Prof. Scicluna argues, is sufficient cause of alarm for taxpayers. Even if one were to make an act of faith and accept that the integrity failures of the public procurement process are merely the result of lack of experienced staff, the risks that corruption creeps in the system are substantial.
Integrity refers to upholding ethical standards and moral values of honesty, professionalism and righteousness and is a cornerstone for ensuring fairness, non-discrimination and compliance in the public procurement process. The responsibility for ensuring that the process is managed by competent people falls on the politicians who have the authority to define what is expected of civil servants and other independent people involved in the procurement process.
By adopting the OECD and EU guidelines on good governance in the public procurement system, the government can reverse the severe failings that undermine the trust that people should have in the process that determines how their money is spent. Some countries have introduced direct social control by involving citizens at critical stages of the procurement process. Open and regular dialogue with suppliers and business associations can also promote mutual understanding of factors shaping public markets.
Stakeholders’ involvement in policy processes is another crucial element that should be at the basis of a public procurement system. This objective can be achieved by granting stakeholders – civil society, business organisations, the media and citizens – equitable voices in the development and implementation of public policies.
Watchdog organisations and the independent media should also be empowered to ensure that effective accountability is built in the procurement system.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial