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Friday, April 12, 2013

Good procurement is the cornerstone of good governance

I co-teach a course on the Principles and Fundamentals of Procurement at Guam Community College. I make the obviously exaggerated claim that good procurement is the cornerstone of good governance, and that if not handled correctly, it can undermine public confidence in a community's own government to such an extent that, in extreme cases, can lead to insurrection.

The following article contains the text of a speech by British ambassador to Bulgaria, Jonathan Allen, which provides a much more interesting and particular, if not extreme, exposition of my proposition. I urge you to read more at the link for the article.

UK ambassador: Should I be an optimist or a pessimist about Bulgaria?
Th[e] key element of the Bulgarian psyche might be characterised as a negativity about the situation in Bulgaria and cynicism over how things happen here, coupled with fervent idealism about life everywhere else. It forms a vicious circle – if people believe not only that Bulgaria is below average, but that everywhere else is above average, it magnifies the perceived gap.

Let me share an anecdote from my own Embassy to illustrate my point. A colleague from my commercial team complained about a tender that UK companies were interested in. “It’s ridiculous”, they fumed, “the tender terms have been written so tightly that they exclude any serious company with international experience from bidding. It is clearly a stitch-up, designed to ensure one company wins. That’s how things happen in Bulgaria.”

So when I next met the Minister, I innocently asked about progress in this area. “It’s ridiculous”, said the Minister, “the tender terms were written so tightly, they excluded any serious company with international experience from bidding. We only got one company that applied. We need much wider expertise if we are to improve. I’ve cancelled the tender and we will try again”.

The problem with this pessimism and this cynicism is that it is infectious. Politicians, media, NGOs, think tanks all magnify and amplify. It infects foreign diplomats and their governments. It becomes the story that people hear and re-tell about the country. It becomes existential: an action cannot merely be incompetent but it has to be corrupt. A new mall is assumed to be a front for money laundering, an assumption that is repeated as gospel truth.

Worse, it becomes an alibi for inaction. “What’s the point in trying to do anything?” sigh Bulgarian and foreigner alike. People abdicate their responsibilities with a shrug of their shoulders. It is someone else’s task to do something about it. So I’ll park on the pavement rather than finding a space and complain later about the broken paving stones.
The Ambassador's speech covers a lot of ground, this being only one small part. It would make for good reading by anyone, but any Guamanian who might stumble on this post might find more of it resonating than others, for instance:
Ever since my arrival, I have heard a lot about centralisation of decision-making in Bulgaria. But it seems to me that power is diffuse. Much relies on the willingness and ability of individual municipalities and mayors to take action. There is an over-reliance on legislation as the basis for activity. Ministries can take an age to come to agreement on a policy, or not do so at all.

Believe me when I say that it is far easier to announce what needs to be done than to do it: it is easier to spot strategic gaps than to fill them. Even in my own country, with all its years of stability and its developed bureaucracy, there are still far too many strategies that are published with a fanfare, only to gather dust on a shelf.

Announcing a strategy or a decision is only any good if the lever that you pull is actually attached to the machinery.

In my country, we have the Cabinet Office. It is responsible for getting agreement where there is none and for making the calls on the trade-offs needed between different departments’ vital interests. Meetings are held at a range of levels from officials to Deputy Ministers to the Cabinet itself, to support common approaches and tackle obstacles and problems. Failure by a department to do what it has agreed leads to an increasingly difficult set of meetings, until ultimately the Prime Minister himself has a terse phone call or meeting (without biscuits) with the relevant minister.

I wonder if there is room here for such a strategic centre, forging consensus and systematically following-up agreed actions at every level of government, including local. Perhaps in the Council of Ministers?

To an outsider, the risk of this not happening is greater than the risk of concentration of power in the centre.
Of course, one reason for a community's reticence centralize government is in big part because it may not be trusted.  It can be a vicious circle indeed.

I'd also caution, the only way centralization works is if there is rigorous accountability, such as the ancient but diminishing (to the point of being considered "quaint") notion of ministerial responsibility. As the Ambassador alludes:
In Bulgarian the word for “transparency” – “прозрачност/prozrachnost” – is a close relation to the word for “window” – “прозoрец/prozoretz”. But transparency is not just a window through which we observe a scene played out before an audience.

For it to be meaningful it has to be a value that runs through all that the state does – the belief that scrutiny and being held to account make for a stronger, healthier government, better policies and better implementation of those policies.

It means setting clear standards for public services and reporting openly on progress in meeting those standards, and inviting involvement in their design and running from those who use them.

It means regulators that work openly in the interests of citizens and consumers.

It means the highest standards of disclosure of personal interests from those in authority, and of hospitality and gifts received, and complete openness on government expenditure.

It means a media that is plural, independent and investigates on behalf of the citizen.

Transparency is also about facing openly the issues in a society and using that information to change attitudes and behaviours. If we are not careful, the very tightness of the bonds that sustain personal networks could delineate those within from those outside it, who become “other”. Strong societies and communities rely on a willingness to act in the interests of a wider network, of people that we don’t know and haven’t met.

Transparency means giving power to the Bulgarian people and trusting them. Once done, it is almost impossible to reverse. A great opportunity exists for open government.

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