Monday 27 August 2012

The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs

It's not about the rules for government procurements; it's about the money itself
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2012

There's been another ruckus online over government agencies allegedly spending more money than necessary, this time over the purchase of office chairs costing almost $600 each.

What's the connection between this and the questions being raised over the NParks' purchase of Brompton bicycles that is now the subject of a corruption investigation?

If your answer is that both are about how government agencies procure goods and services and whether they follow established policies, you're only partly right.

If that was all, the matter could be resolved quite simply and quickly - tighten the rules, introduce more if necessary, and make sure they are followed.

In fact, that was how the story developed; earlier this month, the Finance Ministry announced new rules to improve the buying process, including lengthening the bidding period from four to seven days.

End of story?

Not at all. That would be the wrong story and ending it this way wouldn't make the problem go away.

To be sure, the issues over rules are important and need to be put right. But they are not the most critical.

So, what's bugging Singaporeans?

I believe it's really about the money itself, not the rules or whether they were followed.

It wouldn't matter if there were 10 bidders instead of just one for the tender to buy foldable bikes.

If NParks ended up paying $2,200 a bike, there would still be many unhappy with the outcome.

Ditto the $597 Herman Miller chairs bought by the Attorney-General's Chambers.

From where many Singaporeans come, and I mean that both physically (the majority from the Housing Board heartlands) and figuratively (they have lived though hard times when money was tight), they cannot comprehend why these agencies have to spend so much to buy these things, when they personally would never do so.

Here is a clash of two worlds that the Instruction Manual issued by the Finance Ministry for proper financial procedures wasn't meant to deal with.

In the world of the rational bureaucrat, it makes perfect sense to pay $2,200 rather than $300 for a bike if the financial analysis shows that it's a better deal in the long run because it lasts longer, wouldn't break down as frequently and has a longer warranty period.

And how do you price comfort? And the well-being of staff who will be spending many hours riding those bikes or sitting on those chairs?

Taking all these things into consideration, it is entirely possible that the higher-priced purchase would make the better choice.

But - and this is the crux of the matter - only if you can afford it.

In the world of the sometimes- not-so-rational public, when people have to decide whether to buy something for themselves, it doesn't matter what the calculations turn up if you can't afford a $600 chair.

That's the end of the story, even if it's the most comfortable chair in the world.

And even if you can afford it, you may still think it's too much to pay and that you would rather spend the money on your son's education or save it for a rainy day.

This other world isn't run along cost-benefit analyses - how do you put a price on education or the prospect of having to cope with inclement weather?

Instead it is shaped by one's life experience, and the influence of people around you, all of which determines the values you believe in - whether it's extravagance versus thrift, or caution versus impulsiveness or whatever.

They help most people decide, almost in an instinctive way, whether a thing is right or wrong.

That's too much to pay! We sometimes say that, and we don't require a cost-benefit analysis to tell us.

Can the public sector act in the same way, and develop these instincts to guide and inform its decision-making? Can these values sit together with rational decision- making, which is also needed because there are choices to be made which will require fine calculations and analysis?

One is about hard numbers and mathematical calculations, the other is about judgment, what's right or wrong, and what is or not acceptable to the public.

Doing both will require leadership of a different order. But that's what leaders are for: To say this or that is simply not acceptable - whether it's a $600 chair or a $2,200 bike - because it's too extravagant and won't pass the values test.

Of course, it may also mean going ahead with the purchase, public unhappiness notwithstanding, because of the benefits it will bring, both tangible and intangible. That's what leadership demands as well.

And they will say this no matter what the cost-benefit analysis shows because that's what their judgment is.

It will require clear-headed and strong leadership that knows what's right and wrong.

But how does it decide in each instance?

This isn't easy and there are no simple answers. How does an organisation develop a culture and a value system to do the right thing, that is also in tune with the times and the aspirations of the majority of the people?

How does a leadership imbue its staff with these values so the ethos of the service is the right one for the age?

Part of the problem in Singapore is the dramatic transformation that has taken place in such a short span of time, and the different speeds at which different parts of the society have moved with these changes.

It was simpler in the early years of Independence, when the leadership and the people were shaped by the same experience and there was better understanding all round of what needed to be done and agreement on what was right or wrong.

People respected the frugal lives led by the leaders and the spartan offices they worked in because that was how the majority of Singaporeans lived and worked. That was part of the ethos then.

What is it now?

Is there a widening gap in expectations between the general public and the public sector leadership? There is also the question of whether there is a gap in expectations between what the public expects of public servants, and what public servants want for themselves.

To put it bluntly, is the public content with $200 Aleoca folding bicycles for themselves and for public servants, while public servants want $2,200 Brompton bicycles to do their jobs on?

If so, Singapore is facing a serious problem. Because unless there is a common understanding on what is right or wrong, there will be endless quarrels, and not just over the correct price to pay for something.

If we want to understand what was at the root of public unhappiness regarding those recent government purchases, we have to ask these deeper questions, and not just fix the mechanics of the buying process.

Indeed this issue is also relevant to the recently announced move by the Government to try to forge a national consensus on Singapore's future.

It is possible to do this only if there is agreement today on the right ethos and values of those institutions that are critical in shaping Singapore's future.

If we cannot agree on the Singapore story today, how can we decide what future story is best?

There are many places to start this discussion, but I believe we can do worse than begin with foldable bikes and office chairs.

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