A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
The Minister of Health has announced that a probe is going to be held into the controversial billion- dollar procurement of medicines. This announcement, however, is not entirely reassuring.
The Minister’s announcement that there will be a probe, comes against the backdrop of a statement made by the government itself that the medicines were procured as part of a total package.
The promise of a probe also comes amidst a robust defense of the contract itself by the Minister’s predecessor speaking on a private television channel.
Within the government therefore, there is a view that the procurement may be above board. It is in this context that the Ministry of Health is launching a probe. This begs the question: what happens if the probe finds that there were indeed problems with the procurement?
The decision to have a probe also comes against the background of a recent no- objection decision by the government to award a similar contract to the same company that is now under the microscope.
This is the conundrum that the government finds itself in and therefore in the interest of having a probe that will enjoy public confidence and which will not be viewed as merely an act to confirm what has already been expressed within the government.
As such the Ministry of Health should select a probe team that is independent of the government to undertake the review of the process of prequalification of the bidders and the actual process of evaluating the tenders that were submitted by the prequalified bidders.
At the heart of the national procurement system is the encouragement of competitive bidding. Prequalification is not intended to reduce competition but only to weed out unqualified bidders without stymieing competition amongst bidders.
Prequalification should also not employ requirements that are unfair or unreasonable, and the decision to shortlist prequalified companies should not be whimsical, uninformed or biased.
It will be for the probe team to determine whether prequalification rules were rigged against certain companies or whether the process was fair, objective and in compliance with the law.
The probe team should also examine the issue of whether value for money was obtained. The company which was awarded the contract has itself called for the Auditor General to carry out such an audit. However, the Auditor General needs to be reminded that his office is not an agency of the government and the government has no authority to ask him to conduct any investigation.
He has to do that of his own free will and his report submitted to parliament and not to the government.
The government, itself, however has an obligation to undertake its own inquiry and it is a welcome development that the Minister of Health has decided to do so.
But he should ensure that the probe team is so comprised that it enjoys public confidence because we are not dealing with a million dollar contract or a contract for a few million dollars. We are dealing with a billion dollar contract.
This probe will become the acid test of how serious the government is about ensuring probity in government. As such the government should ensure a probe team that enjoys the widest possible confidence.
There is no need for a full scale inquiry. A good three- person team will suffice. A full scale inquiry would be too formalistic and take too much time.
A small probe team would be an informal arrangement which has seen works very efficiently in cases in which the terms of reference of the probe is not wide-ranging.
In the case, for example, of the one-man team established to examine the implementation of the recommendations of the Burrowes Commission of Inquiry into the Georgetown municipality, the one- man team it is said, has unearthed more corruption that the actual commission of inquiry.
There is no reason therefore why Mr. Ramon Gaskin along with two other independent persons should not be asked to constitute the probe team into the medicine contract. Such a team will enjoy public confidence and will signal that the government is prepared to act where the evidence exists.
The ball is therefore now entirely in the court of the Minister of Health. The country is not going to accept any in-house probe.
Only a thorough review with terms of reference which includes examining the relevance of the criteria used for prequalification and the actual process used to select the successful bidder will satisfy the public that the government is serious about addressing serious concerns about the way in which it does business.
The track record of the PPPC administrations and the stubbornness of some politicians within the government to not cede any political turf may stand as an obstacle in the way of a probe that enjoys widespread public confidence.
But if the government is serious about burnishing its image, it should take the necessary action to make this probe the first step in the right direction when it comes to public transparency and accountability.