Friday, June 26, 2009

Government Lapses - Have you read the IM?

The word “lapse” – made almost fashionable since the escape of Mas Selamat Kastari (MSK) – has become heavy weighted with the tinge of bureaucratic incompetence. In the wake of the Committee of Inquiry findings on the lapses that led to MSK’s escape, I forwarded the notion that the ISD, like all its government agency buddies, suffered from a crippling bureaucratic culture that in their case led to inaction as a result of disempowerment and job scope compartmentalization.

In the Third Report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which was presented to Parliament on 23 June 2009, further lapses were found in several stat boards; ranging from tender-issuing irregularities to what is basically wasteful management of public resources.

Oversights and errors in judgment are part and parcel of any entity, be it public or private. Therefore I hope the affected Ministries and Stat Boards would accept these public airing of their shortcomings as a useful exercise in humility and accountability. Reasonable people would find no joy in reveling in their failures as ultimately as citizens, their failures more often then not have real consequences for the public at large.

I wont go into details of the latest lapses as they are readily available here. However I would like to highlight certain portions of the report that I feel encapsulate the cultural issues that plague our public servants.

In explaining the case of MINDEF in which a sub-contractor that was used had been barred from public-sector projects because of corruption, the Permanent Secretary of MINDEF “explained that its procurement agent, the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), did not check the debarment status of subcontractors as this was not required under the Government Instruction Manuals (IMs). Nevertheless, DSTA would amend its vetting procedures accordingly should the IMs be amended.”

For a sensitive institution that falls under the purview of MINDEF, a reasonable expectation would be proper screenings of the external parties the Stat Board deals with. Even in the absence of this due diligence, explaining it away with the lack of requirements listed in an Instruction Manual is indicative of functional impotence and more importantly, the frictions between those that set rules and those that have to follow them. Accountability should not be understood as enacting a series of rules that trap individuals into a mindset of “just follow law” as ignorance of an IM’s existence is seen as an unjustifiable excuse. Accountability is a process and not an IM. The existence of an IM doesn’t ensure good practice; it only ensures there is clarity when meting out punishment.

This is illustrated in the other ‘lapse’ covered in the report. I use air quotes as I personally do not think it is a lapse due to negligence or corruption. The report states that the National Heritage Board (NHB) had given an additional contract of $26 million for the construction of exhibition galleries at the National Museum to a designing company without calling for an additional tender; the company had previously won the tender two years ago at a lower quote. The board explained that it had given this designing company the additional contract work to avoid an 8 months delay to the reopening of the Museum. It also explained that the designer's price for the additional works was within the board's initial budget and very few contractors could do such specialized and complex construction.

Tendering processes have a good purpose. They are implemented to ensure competitive government procurement of services with the prime objectives of ensuring competitive prices and access parity to government projects. However, to fault the NHB for not re-initiating a tender process for additional work when the incumbent contract firm is already in place – and is still in the process of fulfilling its contract that it attained in a prior tender process mind you – is downright wasteful and inefficient. Alas, it is to fulfill some government IM crafted by individuals who probably never have to comply with such processes themselves.

So before you decide on the next blog to visit - have you read the IM?