By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
A CABINET minister yesterday said reforms to the Public Procurement Act may be tabled in Parliament tomorrow as the Government unveiled the upgraded electronic system via which all public sector contracts will be made available.
Michael Halkitis, minister of economic affairs, in confirming that the Bill containing the amendments may be tabled as early as Wednesday also disclosed that the “central Tenders Board” will remain in place to vet high-value and other contracts awarded by the Government. He also cautioned that vendors may not necessarily win a bid even if they score highly with their initial proposal.
While “each agency will have its own tenders committee”, the minister added: “There will still be, when we come to certain sizes of contracts, the need for certain levels of approval either at the Ministry of Finance or at the Cabinet level”. Those contract sizes were not defined.
The Public Procurement Act, passed by Parliament under the former Minnis administration and brought into effect on September 1 last year, just two weeks before the general election, was intended to bring greater transparency and efficiency to the millions of dollars awarded in public sector contracts annually by having the process held out in the open.
However, it has been the subject of an intense political battle for much of the past year which culminated in last week’s threat by the Opposition Free National Movement (FNM) to initiate a Judicial Review legal action in the Supreme Court over the Davis administration’s alleged violations of the Act as it currently stands.
The law presently requires the Government and all its ministries, departments and agencies to publish - within 60 days of every contract award - the winning bidder’s name and address; contract amount; bid title; name of the procuring entity; and bidding method used. This means that all government contracts awarded up to August 3 should now have been publicly declared, but none have.
The Davis administration has argued that its predecessor’s failure to follow the necessary public service protocols, and appoint a chief procurement officer to oversee the Act’s implementation, meant it is impossible for the Government to reveal these contract details. However, Tribune Business’ analysis of the Act did not reveal anything to suggest disclosure hinges on such an appointment.
The legislation was also designed to prevent cronyism, nepotism and the awarding of contracts to political favourites rather than based on ability, thus generating improved value for money for Bahamian taxpayers and cutting out corruption and wastage.
However, the Davis administration has argued that the legislation is overly-bureaucratic and cumbersome, making it unworkable in practice. It says this has ensnared simple purchases in red tape, and added to costs and inefficiency, even though clause 34’s “limited bidding” provides for emergency contracts. It also pointed out that the accompanying regulations and guidance notes, and multiple other requirements needed to give the law effect, were never put in place.
Meanwhile, the Government’s enhanced electronic procurement platform has already attracted 400 vendors to register following its soft launch last week ahead of yesterday’s formal unveiling.
Derek Atkins, the procurement portal’s implementation manager, said: “There is no limit to the platform… We’ve got some of the largest counties in the US, including Cook County, Illinois, and Harris County in Texas, with 5.7m people, they’re running huge multi-million dollar construction projects. There really is no limit as to the size of opportunities that can be posted there.
“With the launch, we built a new portal for the Ministry of Finance vendors. It’s called MOFvendors.gov.bs. On the top right of that page, you’ll see a login button. When you log in, when you select that it will display any open public opportunities that have been posted.
“From there, you can register a vendor account, respond to opportunities and we also have a notification. So during your registration, you will indicate the services that you can provide as well as the islands that you can serve, and through that that allows the project donors to run projects and send specific notifications to those vendors of that new opportunity,” Mr Atkins explained.
“So if we’re running a construction project in Freeport, and you’re a Freeport-based vendor that provides construction services, the project owner will send that invitation to you. So it opens up that ability to become made aware of projects that are launched and givea you the ability to submit to them.”
There will be no barriers to anyone registering or applying for a contract either, as the system is not designed to exclude any particular vendor automatically. However, there will be a rating system of the best bids for a particular opportunity. The weaker bids will be weeded out, and only the top bids move forward to the respective tenders committee at any given government agency that is responsible for selecting the winning bidder.
Mr Atkins said: “We’ll need pricing in some cases, and sometimes you won’t require pricing. But you’ll need a proposal,;
“So once you’ve provided everything that has been requested, there’ll be an evaluation team that goes through all the material and make sure that you meet the qualifications. And then, for the winning bidder, they will have the highest point value. Then they will reach out to that vendor and negotiate the contract from there.”