Mar 31, 2013 | Corruption Watch

Is our government just really bad at procurement, or is there a deeper problem with the law that applies to tendering?

IT SEEMS that every other week there is a different scandal involving procurement. Most tenders seem to land up in court, with service providers squabbling over the spoils of government spending. Is our government just really bad at procurement, or is there a deeper problem with the law that applies to tendering? Perplexed

Dear Perplexed

We believe that it is a bit of both. While there is no denying that some of the bureaucrats responsible for procurement are corrupt (as are some of the private companies that bid for contracts), the law governing public procurement has become increasingly complicated.

In our view, procurement law has now become so complicated that it may be undermining service delivery. For example, many organs of state are unable to spend their budgets and infrastructure grants. The complexity of procurement law contributes to this problem by paralysing civil servants who become hyper-cautious in their desire to avoid infringing the law.

Part of the problem is that there are so many different levels of procurement law.

A well-intentioned and honest administrator will find that the following layers of law govern procurement:

Section 217 of the constitution expressly deals with government procurement. It provides that when an organ of state contracts for goods or services, it must do so “in accordance with a system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective”.

The award of a tender constitutes administrative action in terms of the constitution. As such, the award of tenders is subject to review under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act.

Various pieces of legislation govern the budgeting process, internal controls and the requirement that people historically disadvantaged by unfair discrimination be favoured.

Each organ of state has its own supply chain management policy, which must be followed by its bureaucrats when engaging in procurement.

Any information held by an organ of state relating to the tender process is potentially affected by the Promotion of Access to Information Act, and may be the subject of requests for information by other affected parties.

The contract between the relevant organ of state and the service provider is governed by the common law of contract.

As a result, innumerable pitfalls await even the most well-intentioned administrator.

The competitive nature of tender processes and the enormous financial benefits to be gained from contracts for government procurement are a powerful incentive for unsuccessful parties to litigate, which they often do.

Their lawyers scrutinise every step in the process for compliance with the various laws and procedures, and pounce on every real or perceived irregularity. Very few administrative processes are entirely free from any misstep, and when one is found, litigation soon follows.

In addition, bureaucrats are required to account to government oversight bodies in respect of expenditure, including internal accounting officers and the Treasury. The procurement process may also be subjected to scrutiny by the auditor-general and the public protector.

Even where litigation by disgruntled parties fails, or investigations by other organs of state result in a clean bill of health, the effect of such litigation and investigation is to delay the provision of the service in question.

Procurement processes are often suspended while disputes are resolved, which can mean delays of years in service delivery.

We are therefore of the view that legal reforms to simplify and speed up procurement are justified. Any reform would have to ensure that accountability mechanisms remain in place, and that the law retains proper safeguards for detecting corruption and maladministration.

That would require careful balancing between swift, effective service provision and a functioning oversight mechanism.

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times