Saturday 18 August 2012

After the lapses ...

While changes to procurement process are for the better, some civil servants are frustrated over additional requirements and paperwork
by Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 15 Aug 2012

More than one government agency is believed to have done away with the practice of using petty cash to pay for small value purchases including stationery, which now require written approval.

At least one statutory board now makes it compulsory for staff to attend a three-day procurement course - and pass a test - before they are allowed to buy anything using taxpayers' money.

These are some of the new requirements - as told to TODAY by civil servants - to tighten the public procurement system in the wake of a spate of lapses in recent months.

TODAY has also learnt that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) has started discussions with Civil Service College (CSC) to review the college's procurement courses for public servants. 

The civil servants spoke to TODAY on condition of anonymity. While they generally acknowledged that the changes were for the better, some said they are also frustrated with the additional requirements and paperwork. 

The most recent high-profile lapse involved the purchase of 26 foldable Brompton bicycles - costing S$2,200 each - by the National Parks Board.

The purchases came to light after a June 22 report in Lianhe Zaobao. The authorities have since uncovered discrepancies and the case has been referred to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

One civil servant, who has been working in a statutory board for more than two years, said the new requirement for the mandatory procurement course started in July. His organisation has also tightened the buying process, requiring staff to raise a purchase request before asking vendors for quotes. Previously, it was the other way round.

He said: "Some changes are necessary as it improves the process. But they keep changing the rules, everytime something happens and it gets reported in the papers, everyone will check and then make changes. This is very confusing for us because we have to re-learn the processes."

He added: "We then waste even more time when we get things wrong and have to re-do."

'Everyone is scared to buy anything now'

The Brompton bicycle case is the latest in a string of lapses. In 2010, two former Singapore Land Authority (SLA) employees were charged - and later convicted - of cheating the SLA of more than S$12 million. The incident prompted a government-wide review of public agencies' procurement procedures.

While the review concluded that the procurement rules and guidelines were fundamentally sound, some agencies have tightened their procurement processes beyond the rules and guidelines.

In April, the Public Accounts Committee also expressed concern over recurring lapses in public agencies' procurement practices over the last five years.

Two months later, ex-Singapore Civil Defence Force Commissioner Peter Lim Sin Pang and former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay were charged with corruption involving sexual favours from women in return for government contracts.

Most of the civil servants TODAY spoke to said they were concerned with their fellow civil servants getting "jumpy" in making purchases in the current climate.

"Everyone is scared to buy anything now," said one of them. She said that for her division, even purchases of items such as stationery need to be approved in writing by the head of her division first. This practice started earlier this year.

Another, who works in a statutory board, said: "More time is wasted on drafting emails to justify every purchase, which is simply inefficient and time wasting ... We are just very conscious now about shortlisting vendors. Everything I do now, I think about the repercussions."

In an email that civil servants received recently, they were informed that the MOF and the CSC will be reviewing the latter's procurement courses, in particular the areas related to the lapses, such as contract management. The email also reminded civil servants to exercise greater caution in their procurement processes.

On Monday, Deputy Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced further improvements to the public sector procurement system. Among other things, the approval procedures for single bids will be tightened and quotations will be kept open long enough to encourage more suppliers to take part.

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