'Man behind the machine' is a common phrase touted by management pundits and professionals. It implies that the outcome of any machine-linked endeavour is mostly determined by the efficacy of people behind the machine, not the machine itself. The dream of a 'Digital Bangladesh' vaunted by Bangladesh authorities over the past two decades as a gateway for achieving progress and curbing corruption may be cited here as an analogy. As evident from a recent study on electronic government procurement (e-GP) conducted by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), digitalisation alone has not proved to be sufficient for eliminating corrupt practices in governance. Rather, it is the integrity of men in charge of running the system that determines whether corruption would decline or thrive.
The study reviewed the execution of e-GP in the country, which is run on the basis of 'Bangladesh Electronic Government Procurement Guidelines 2011'. The specific objectives of the study included identifying the extent to which procurement law and rules are being followed by government organizations; exploring the causes of non-adherence to e-GP; reviewing the effectiveness of e-GP in different government bodies; and making recommendations for overcoming the current challenges.
The four government agencies selected for this qualitative research were: Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), Roads and Highways Department (R&HD), Water Development Board (WDB), and Rural Electrification Board (REB). These organizations were among the first to adopt e-GP, and budgetary allocations for them in the ADP amounted to 20 percent of total outlay.
A total of 20 indicators linked to 5 dimensions were examined in the study. The dimension 'institutional capacity' covered financial, physical cum technical capacity, human resources, e-GP application, annual procurement plan, and procurement limit indicators; 'e-GP Process' included e-GP registration, tender opening process; pre-tender meeting, e-advertisement, tender evaluation, and decision making; the dimension 'e-GP Management' examined e-Contract management and supervising work-order execution; 'Transparency and Accountability' covered complaint resolution, auditing, and asset-disclosure of employees; and the dimension 'Effectiveness' was judged based on two indicators, viz. irregularities and corruption, and quality of work.
In the institutional capacity dimension, most of the surveyed entities had deficiencies in the area of trained manpower, lacking in required skills and practical knowledge. Although e-GP is mandatory for all organizations, it is not fully followed in all procurements, the default rates varying from 20 to 85 percent. Besides, e-GP is not applied in emergency purchases, international procurements, requests for quotations and direct purchases. The annual procurement plan is also absent in the websites of relevant agencies.
Only the R&HD had a satisfactory score in e-GP process dimension. Although there are tender evaluation committees in all agencies, the computer operators occasionally open tenders on their behalf. Though the identities of contractors are supposed to remain secret before the opening of tenders, this confidentiality is not maintained by any agency. Besides, the computer operators sometimes submit tenders on behalf of contractors in exchange for bribes. None of the entities hold pre-tender meetings and there are also insufficient verifications of papers submitted by contractors. In the absence of a contractors' database, their work-experiences are checked through manual methods.
The contractors should submit work-plan under the dimension of e-GP management and also need to use e-GP contract management tools while preparing periodic reports. But this is not being followed by any of the organizations. On the other hand, the supervision of work-order execution is also not being practiced properly.
All the surveyed organizations fared miserably in the dimension of transparency and accountability, with their scores ranging from 19% (WDB) to 30% (R&HD). Although effective complaint resolution mechanism exists in LGED and R&HD, there are allegations that grievances are not redressed at WDB and REB. Although auditing log is supposed to be maintained by the e-GP portals, none of the surveyed agencies adhere to that. Besides, though all government officials are required to submit their periodic asset statements as per rule, none of the entities follow that.
In the dimension of effectiveness, most of the surveyed officials opined there was hardly any correlation between e-GP and decline in corruption, as many irregularities still exist. There are allegations of political control of tendering process and distribution of work among contractors by the powerful ones. In some areas, the political leaders, particularly local MPs decide who should submit tenders. In many instances, work is distributed among local leaders and activists under the cover of a bigger licence. In tender evaluations, there are complaints of negligence by officials, preparation of evaluation reports by computer operators, and favouritism through adding or deducting marks. Besides, there are allegations of bribery in limited tendering method (LTM), as well as corruption in supervision of work, information of progress reports, and processing of bills after completion of work.
There are also complaints of collusion in open tendering method (OTM) through formation of syndicates beforehand that involve contractors, political leaders and relevant officials. Besides, there are instances of selling the tendered work and distributing sub-contracts illegally, using another person's certificate and licence, and forcible extortion by local political leaders. Most of the surveyed officials opined there was no correlation between e-GP and quality of executed work.
Some recommendations have also been put forward for overcoming the challenges faced by the country's e-GP system. Overall, its administration should be freed from political influences, collusions and syndicates. With that objective, the scope for direct or indirect business relationships between the state and public representatives at all levels should be stopped. Besides, all types of purchases by procuring entities should be done through e-GP; the manpower for running the system should be bolstered as per requirement; all relevant stakeholders should be brought under the purview of training; a comprehensive online database of contractors should be prepared; an automated tender evaluation procedure should be used by all procuring entities; all procuring bodies should be audited in line with e-GP guidelines; and there should be community monitoring of work at the local level.
The writer is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.