Auditor General offered UN post in Sierra Leone
Would like to see modern public accounts in place
Flouting of tender board procedures remains key problem By Gitanjali Singh
July 17, 2002
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"All is still not well. The number one problem remains adherence to tender board procedures, be they Central Tender Board, Ministerial or Departmental Tender Board" the Auditor General said.
He noted that because the present system was bureaucratic, archaic and cumbersome, and was in dire need of review, he sympathised with the Accounting Officers who have to complete their work schedule in a timely manner but find themselves cash strapped because of the pattern of release of funds coupled with the undue delays in having the Central Tender Board adjudicate on major contracts. Some of them, unfortunately, sought to circumvent the Tender Board Regulations through contract splitting, he noted. "I think I have a fair understanding of where the problems are in the case of public procurement and that is why I felt I should have been given the benefit of offering comments on the final draft of the recently passed procurement legislation," Goolsarran said. He has been arguing for the composition of the Central Tender Board (to now be called the National Procurement Board) to be more broad-based and to include representatives of the Engineers Association, the Consumers' Association, the Trades Union Movement and the University of Guyana.
Another worrying issue for him in this regard, has been the keeping of proper minutes of meetings of all tender boards. At present these are hopelessly inadequate and do not allow for satisfaction about the basis of the award of contracts. He is not sure if the new legislation addresses these issues.
Goolsarran also said that all things being equal, the award of contracts should be to the most competitive bids. However, some contracts are awarded because bids are closest to the Engineer's Estimates. He noted that the existing regulations give no clear guidance in this regard.
Additionally, Goolsarran said he was not convinced of the integrity of the Engineer's Estimate. This estimate should be kept with the highest degree of confidentiality, sealed and placed in the tender box, he argued. The contents should only be made available on opening of the bids. He said he noted recently that one bid for a major contract was submitted with the exact figure shown on the Engineer's Estimate. Contract variations are also a sore point for Goolsarran. He said there are too many variations after contracts are awarded, indicating prima facie that proper assessment of work to be done was not being carried out. The Auditor General also noted that independent consultants normally monitored the progress of work on behalf of the State and certified payments based on measured work. Yet several instances were uncovered where contractors were paid for work not done or unsatisfactorily performed.
Apart from the tendering problems confronting the system of public accountability, Goolsarran said, there remained hundreds of government bank accounts which are not properly reconciled because the system is largely manual in an age of computers. Some accounts are in serious overdraft, while others have significant sums of money. The Consolidated Fund at the end of 2001 was overdrawn by $63.7 billion but the overall state of the government accounts shows a positive balance of $15.9 billion. Goolsarran said reconciling these statements manually was practically unmanageable and an effective accounting software package could solve the problem.
But despite these recurring problems, Goolsarran said, two big pluses have been (a) the fact that accounting officers have accepted their legal and moral responsibility to be accountable and (b) the role that the PAC has been playing under the chairmanship of Barrow and now Murray. He said when Barrow took up the chairmanship of the PAC in 1994 all members put aside partisan political interests and put national interest first. He singled out for special mention Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, Dr Leslie Ramsammy and Dr Motilall. This trend continues under the chairmanship of Murray. "I have been so touched by this display of national interest over partisan political interest that I sometimes wonder why the full National Assembly cannot operate in like vein," Goolsarran said.
Goolsarran argues that the recurring problems highlighted in his reports are a direct result of the bureaucratic, archaic and cumbersome systems and procedures. "We have inherited the present system from colonial times and the system has outlived its usefulness. We need to sit down and develop a new model which takes into account the local situation, the level of skills available, what is considered good accounting practices and the use of information technology," Goolsarran said. He posited that taking a hard look at the system was necessary and if it were changed, at least 50% of the problems currently still plaguing government spending will be eliminated.
He said a new system of accountability would remove suspicion and doubts and noted that in relation to the awarding of contracts, only the winning bidder was informed. In such circumstances, it was conceivable for unsuccessful bidders to harbour the feeling that they were not fairly treated. This would result in allegations of impropriety being levelled against those responsible for the adjudication of the award. Goolsarran is of the view that those failing to secure contracts should be written to and given three days to make any objection to a higher body. This body should be given another three days to dispose of any queries so that the contract can be awarded within seven days.
Goolsarran also believes that once per fortnight a list of all major contracts awarded should be published along with the number of bids received for each contract and the basis of the award. This practice would go a far way in removing any allegations of corruption. "If we operate a transparent system, then perhaps 50% of the allegations of impropriety in the award of contracts can be removed." Goolsarran sees his contribution to public accountability in two areas: public officials' acceptance of their moral and legal responsibility to be accountable; the non-partisan role of the PAC in monitoring and controlling public expenditure, assisted by the work of a credible institution in the Audit Office.