International Anti-Corruption Day observed on 9th December, 2020 themed “Recover With Integrity” carried a special significance to me this year since the passage of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in 2003 and its first annual commemoration. It never really registered on the broad perceptual attention scope until I decided late last year to become an entrepreneur and build a business. A decision that took every molecule of courage and confidence; possessed, latent, and imagined.
From the presumed security of a steady paycheck to complete exposure to a wide-range of foreseeable and unforeseeable risks, was an idea that the mind of a safety-seeking person like me could never conceive or entertain regardless of the extent of encouragement received from close friends to invest exceedingly committed efforts in other people’s businesses instead into my own.
Having worked over 6 years at a start-up, I was acutely aware that 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. The statistics alone are sufficient to attach yourself to a self-image of an employee until retirement. Except that cumulative evidence of two experiences led me to a realization that valuable resources and energies have a high personal cost and must therefore not be wasted in futility. This was a tipping point that redefined my professional choices.
Just a little over a couple of months from taking the leap of all leaps of faith, COVID-19 struck with its mighty force. When I’m asked how the business is doing, it is assumed that our greatest challenge is COVID -19 and the lockdowns in various parts of the world. Our response is generally met with surprise that the main challenge faced by us in specific sectors internationally, as our business is not conducted with local organizations, is the lack of transparency in public procurement processes, regardless of ostensibly truthful claims on elaborate organizational websites. Some of those key challenges mainly comprise, though are not limited to the following:
- Bidders are required to sign innumerable policies on Codes of Conduct and Ethics, attach very sensitive company information to their proposals and 90% of the time, at least in our case, are not automatically informed of the outcome of the submission nor is the information automatically posted on an Organization’s centralized e-procurement platform. Contract award information being made public can be described as highly sporadic. Transparency International highlighted the importance of ensuring transparency throughout the procurement cycle in “Where Do We Go From Here To Stop The Pandemic?” 29th April, 2020 “Purchasing authorities should make public contract information publicly available regardless of request.” “To achieve greater transparency, procurement data needs to be available and accessible in a timely way through a centralized platform.”
- Should a bidder request information relating to the winning bid, approximately 95% of the time different versions of this response are received if any at all: “It is not our standard practice to disclose winning bid amount and suppliers.” The latter referring to the awarded supplier. The other version is that it is not the organization’s policy to share this information. I copy and paste the transparency statement pertaining to procurement on their websites and reiterate the request. The request is denied once again, and the issue dies a natural death.
- Technical specifications are tailored to a specific company, product and sometimes model. In Transparency International’s working paper, 2010 on Corruption and Public Procurement, it is accurately stated: “Corruption risks are often associated with consultants preparing a design that favors a particular bidder, issuing bidding documents with biased or inaccurate technical specifications, developing award criteria that make competition impossible, and/or improperly using exceptions to open competitive bidding.” Specifications may also be copied and pasted from the previous winning bidders’ proposal.
- Partnering on long-term basis with specific suppliers for the procurement of a product and including the name of the suppliers and the product in research papers and presentations released by an agency on a topic of regional concern. Lucky supplier…free marketing.
- In public procurement of IT hardware, specifications may be for old versions that are not available with the manufacturer or rates are requested on fixed basis for 365 days. In the duration of an execution of a contract, that technology may become obsolete.
- The cancellation of tenders post submission without informing bidders and only finding out after months of chasing down the information.
- Requesting unnecessary samples of goods
- The period taken to make decisions on contract awards exceeding price offer validity requested, not taking into consideration bottlenecks in the global supply chain especially during this period.
- Where there is no information on how to register as a supplier on an organization’s website and that information is requested from the procurement representative, the response is that the representative is not aware of the process, in other words, find someone else to ask.
- Setting deadlines for questions and clarifications and then making modifications to the tender after the deadline for clarifications has expired or about to expire which prevents a bidder from asking questions regarding the modifications.
- Not receiving responses to questions that were submitted during the deadline for requesting clarifications which can impact the pricing of a bid.
This was only a small collection of examples from a year’s experiences under the harshest global conditions. But it was during the peak of demand for PPEs, madly fluctuating prices on daily basis and overwhelmed production lines when the most unrealistic requirements were observed e.g., fixed prices for a minimum of 1 year, short delivery timelines, rates requested without any indication of quantities, offer validity of 60 to 120 days instead of basing those on an understanding of market conditions and speeding up the decision-making process.
It is therefore not illogical to form the opinion that there is a lack of genuine desire or encouragement for competitive bidding to obtain best value proposals whereas an organization’s responsibility is to provide stewardship for public funds that are used through formal procurement processes for which there are many stakeholders including citizens, suppliers, donors and beneficiaries.
In the absence of sufficient results’ visibility and information transparency this inevitably leads to eroding supplier confidence and valuable organizational reputational capital. Additionally, there are missed opportunities and benefits of higher SME participation in public procurement processes as their efforts would fall neatly under high investment costs of time and resources in futility. The invaluable role of SMEs in economic development must not be underestimated or overlooked.
There is no alternative to clear and open communication in building trust in relationships, that includes relationships between suppliers and organizations. There is a delicate balance between confidentiality and transparency and although it is difficult but not impossible to achieve.
If mechanisms, tools and processes no longer serve the purposes for which they were developed, they need to be modified. Inefficient systems and methods need to be replaced by upgraded software and up-to-date policies that recognize rights of bidders and the necessity for prompt communication that meet the needs and expectations of all stakeholders subsequently enabling a redirecting of funds to an organization’s most worthy causes from excessive administrative burdens.
We grew up in times when asking for transparency was as if asking for a privilege. We were taught and trained to adapt to all conditions and circumstances and to “just get on with it”. We were raised to think that if we contest, discuss and debate that we were being disagreeable or discourteous. The younger generations however are now replacing their fathers in managing those businesses. They have entirely different expectations from the world in which they live, the organizations with which they do business, and they demand and expect to be heard. They expect large organizations to adapt to meet their values and to advance to keep up with the times.
Finally, one can only think of some benefits to lack of transparency and smoke and mirrors in public procurement processes, hardly any of them in the public or organizational interests.