Direct Awards for Contracts and Good Governance
I have been inundated with copies of the 30 direct purchase awards signed by the acting minister for finance for contracts that range from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars. Many people have correctly quoted the section of the regulations that stipulate under which circumstances a direct award should be given.
I have a little experience with this, both as an accounting officer under the Finance Administration Act - a permanent secretary, and a minister, clothed with authority under the Constitution to exercise general direction and control over a ministry.
There is a reason a direct award is not the preferred method of awarding contracts and should be used only in extraordinary situations. The preferred method is to solicit tenders for the procurement of goods or services, and when these tenders are received, either a departmental tenders board or the central tenders board is convened, depending on the dollar value of the contract, to evaluate the technical and financial components of the tender. In that way, the government is assured that the bid is subjected to expert scrutiny and that the successful contractor will provide good value for money. It ensures transparency and fairness in the award of government contracts and the use of public funds.
When a permanent secretary writes to the minister for finance and recommends that a direct award be made, he or she needs to convince the minister for finance that comparable services or products cannot be procured in the same period of time from other reputable providers and that the circumstances giving rise to the need for procurement are such that to go through a normal tender process would be disadvantageous to the government or the public. These conditions must be met before a permanent secretary makes a recommendation to the minister for finance for a direct award. The minister for finance, in turn, must assure him or herself that a direct award is the best approach, if not the only approach, in the circumstances.
Which takes me to the plethora of direct awards signed by the acting minister for finance in a very short period, many of them on the same day. It would be very interesting to find out what extraordinary circumstances or set of circumstances convinced the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Infrastructure that it would better serve the public's interest to circumvent the transparency and fairness of the tender process and recommend to the minister for finance that direct awards be given for the works identified in these awards. The person accountable for the funds that were allocated to the respective ministries under the Appropriations Act that gave the government authority to spend the monies in the 2017-2018 budget is the permanent secretary or the head of department. This is why every direct award signed by the acting minister for finance states that it is being done on the advice of the permanent secretary or head of department. Therefore, the Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the leader of the opposition, needs to launch an investigation into these awards and call on the permanent secretaries and heads of department who made these recommendations to provide proof that these direct awards better served the interests of the Saint Lucian taxpayers than a normal tender process.
While I understand the outrage many have over the fact that all of these awards were signed on one or two days by the acting prime minister and acting minister for finance, I believe the focus should start with the accounting officers. After this, it can shift to the acting minister for finance.
Accounting officers need to understand or be reminded that they are the ones the Parliament holds responsible for the use of public funds. They are the ones who can be surcharged, under the law, for inappropriate use of public funds. While an accounting officer can be compelled to act against his or her better judgment by a minister, when and where this occurs, the public officer must state in writing, for the record, that he or she is acting against his advice and on the instruction of his or her minister. Anything less leaves that public officer exposed.
Nothing I have just written absolves the minister for finance, acting or substantive, of the responsibility to also ensure that the recommendation made by the permanent secretary for a direct award is prudent and justified. Every request I penned or consented to my permanent secretary penning to the prime minister had to meet this standard (and I did not make many direct award recommendations over my 13 and a half years as a permanent secretary or a minister) and even then, there were one or two occasions where the prime minister sought additional clarification before he consented to make the direct award.
At the end of the day, the focus has to be on good governance and there is little to suggest that this was the most important consideration in this latest saga.