When the then Minister of Finance and Development Planning, the late Baledzi Gaolathe, launched PPADB outside the offices of his ministry ten years ago, he emphasized transparency, integrity, competitiveness, citizen economic empowerment and value for money.
Ten years on, the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board is still struggling to prove that it has lived up to the gauntlet as thrown down by Gaolathe at the time of its inception.
Members of Parliament from across the political divide were this week united in their call for PPADB to reform itself and ensure that it uses the government procurement systems to economically empower citizens.
While the Executive Chairperson, Bridget John, has made it clear that PPADB endeavors to treat all contractors equitably, legislators are worried that PPADB is taking inordinately too long to win public confidence. MPs feel citizens are at the receiving end and are not being “hand-held” to allow them to participate in the economic mainstream of the country.
Veteran politician and Member of Parliament, Daniel Kwelagobe, said PPADB still does not reply letters from contractors who demand answers on accounts of how they would have lost bids.
He said he had one such unanswered letter, receipt of which has not even been acknowledged by PPADB.
Member of Parliament for Tonota South, Pono Moatlhodi, said many citizen contractors that used to be household names have since gone belly up because they were unable to withstand the onslaught from foreign owned firms.
Citizen companies often complain that large contracts in Botswana have since become the preserve of Chinese companies, almost all of whom are supported by the Government of the Peoples Republic of China in funding.
The popular refrain is that because many of the Chinese companies are state-owned, they have a stronger financial muscle which allows them to undercut competition by way of lowering prices.
Recently the Government of Botswana has also publicly acknowledged that while many of the Chinese firms charge low prices, it is not all the time that government gets value for money as many of the infrastructure built by Chinese firms often show defects immediately after commissioning. This raises costs as such infrastructure then has to be maintained at added costs and inconvenience to the state.
One other area that Members of Parliament want PPADB to address is that of the many unhappy citizen bidders.
The Executive Chairperson of PPADB is, however, of the opinion that by its nature PPADB processes produce more aggrieved than happy people.
This, she said, is borne by the fact that for every bid, there are often more losers than winners.
“Given that the procurement asset disposal creates winners and losers there will always be aggrieved bidders who may want to challenge award decisions,” she said.
In one form or another, at least 70percent of government budget passes through procurement, which places onerous responsibility in the hands of PPADB as the administering agency.
Given the high stakes, it also means that PPADB is a target of various interests ÔÇô from the private sector to government procuring entities that utilize the agency for procurement purposes.
That a lot is at stake is also summarized by rising litigation costs borne by PPADB ÔÇô which reached the highest peak to date in the 2009/10 financial year at just over P600 000.
While Members of Parliament are worried that government continues to bleed a lot of money owing to shoddy workmanship, Ms John has said PPADB has not yet blacklisted a single contractor.
She said the Board awaits the publishing of the Code of Conduct by the Attorney General Chambers.
As a result, “No contractor has been delisted or blacklisted to date,” she said.
The recurring theme of citizen economic empowerment was also raised.
Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Ken Matambo, said his ministry is finalizing the policy that will go a long way in giving guidance to PPADB on how to use the procurement budget to economically empower citizens.
For his part, Kwelagobe asked why PPADB has up to now not implemented the long talked about policy of unbundling big projects so that smaller citizen contractors who otherwise do not have the capacity to participate in large scale projects could also have a share.
On the issue of credibility and integrity, the Member of Parliament for Francistown South, Wyinter Mmolotsi, said he did not believe it inspired any confidence that Board Members, staff and their companies were also allowed to take part in the PPADB bidding processes.
Ms John had earlier said PPADB had sought legal advice and had been advised that there was nothing wrong.
“Where personal interest exists, it is required that it be declared and such persons recuse themselves from participating in the discussions. PPADB has consulted with key stakeholders such as DCEC, DPP and AG’s Chambers on whether there is any conflict of interst when Board/staff members engage in tenders. The Board has been reassured by AG’s Chambers that where such interst has been declared, followed by a recusal then there is no conflict of interst.”
This explanation, however, did not sit down well with legislators who felt processes of impartiality could still be compromised.
The most controversial item of discussion was that which deals with the procurement and disposal of sensitive works with security implications.
Ms John told the Members of Parliament that security sensitive procurement was handled by a special committee that has been established specifically for the disciplined forces.
Legislators were however not happy saying there was not enough oversight either at parliament or at PPADB to guard against abuse of this special dispensation.
“Special Procurement and Asset Disposal Committee (SPADC) deals with the procurement and disposal of sensitive works, supplies and services of which strict confidentiality and utmost secrecy may be required for a fixed period. It is the disciplined forces/services or Government and not PPADB who may determine when such information can be declassified for public consumption,” said John.
This, however, left a sour taste in the mouths of many Members of Parliament who felt that PPADB should do more to benchmark with other similar organizations across the world to establish how such matters are handled.
The feeling is that SPADC gives a blank cheque to security agencies, with neither room for recourse nor checks and balances as well as oversight on how the money is used.
At the end of the meeting it was clear that PPADB continues to be dogged by exactly the same issues that have haunted it in the ten years of its existence; the same issues that haunted its forerunner, the Central Tender Board and led to Government coming up with what was thought to be somewhat more foul proof.