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Columnists

Centralised procurement way to go

public procurement
We need a total overhaul of public procurement and go back to the old idea of procuring goods for the public sector by a specialised agency. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

When you give civil servants too much power and discretion, and allow a few bureaucrats to manage a budget running into billions of shillings, it will not take long before you start hearing whispers and allegations about corruption. I say this remarks as an entry point to a discussion about last year’s decision by the government to put procurement of ICT equipment and services for all government departments, including parastatals- under one roof- and in the hands of the Ministry of information, Communications and Technology.

Under the so- called framework agreement procurement method, the ministry in August last year put out a tender for supply and delivery of ICT equipment and devices and software services to government ministries, departments, parastatals, and semi- autonomous government agencies for a period of two years.

Granted, this is not the only instance where framework agreements have been used to procure goods and services by the government. But as demonstrated by the problems surrounding the procurement of the government fertilizer subsidy programme, this method of procurement comes with major corruption risks.

If anything, professionals at the ministry tell me that the original idea was to restrict this method to the purchasing of shared services platforms such as purchasing of bandwidth or buying connectivity from one of the large telecommunication companies.

I am told that the framers did not conceive of a regime whereby the whole of the government budget for computer equipment would sit under one ministry.

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In any event, it was obvious to everybody that the ministry did not possess capacity to put all those purchases to tender, constitute multiple tender evaluation committees to process them- and award all these contracts within one financial year. Call me a pessimist, if you like. But this arrangement comes with major corruption risks.

When you put the ICT budget for the whole government under one roof, you will have created high-value contracts with huge opportunities for rent seeking.

If you want proof of this, then you have to look at what happened to the National Youth Service when its budget increased exponentially within a short period.

Before 2014, all NYS field units operated in a semi-autonomous manner, with each field office head having authority to incur expenditure and to procure its needs. Indeed, the cases of grand corruption we see at the NYS today when-in 2015- a decision was made to procure everything from headquarters in Nairobi.

As it turned out, the most poignant lesson we learnt from the NYS scandal was the following: If you throw billions of shillings at a public institution within a short time frame, without putting into place working accountability systems, you must expect two major problems: Inadequate capacity to absorb the money and corruption.

It does not matter even if you commit the procurement of all ICT government contracts to a committee of archangels. We need a total overhaul of public procurement and go back to the old idea of procuring goods for the public sector by a specialised agency.

We can either reform the Supplies Branch department under the Department of Public Works or eliminate all together to create a system that can enable the government to use economies of scale to purchase common user goods and services at big discounts.

When it comes to management of ICT matters, the government should focus on building capacity outside the mainstream Civil Service bureaucracy even as it builds expertise in autonomous entities such as the Information Technology and Communications Authority (ICTA). I say this because recent trends would appear to show that power to make major decisions is being retained at the ministry, with the autonomous agencies being stripped of power and influence. The idea of collapsing ICT budgets and bringing everything under one roof is clearly the best example and sign of the changing times in the management of the ICT sector.

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