30 Nov 2020 Public Procurement during a Pandemic
Around the world, during the 2020 pandemic, urgency gave way to panic in attempts to source adequate supplies of PPE. It was perhaps inevitable that examples of poor practice, dishonesty and fraud would emerge as criminals saw the opportunity to hide amongst the clamour to claim a share of scarce protective equipment. These things happen. We know it happens. It is shocking to find that there are people who will see the opportunity to enrich themselves at a time when loved ones are losing their lives. And it is sickening when we find that those people suspected of such self-serving criminal behaviour are our government ministers. The very people we put our trust in to protect our society are implicated in fraudulent malpractice on a giant scale. There can be no excuses.
It is shocking to find that there are people who will see Covid as the opportunity to enrich themselves at a time when loved ones are losing their lives.
Proper procurement processes are not a luxury to be adopted when time or circumstances permit. They are there to ensure that the right products and services are sourced and delivered. It is true that they can slow down procurement activity – sometimes very significantly – and when urgency dictates, controls should be pragmatically set aside. But the consequences of this should be understood. The sourcing process will be accelerated but so will mistakes and the opportunities for fraud made easier. You will accelerate delivery of the right products but you will also speed up the delivery and number of inadequate products. It’s hard to get the balance right but in extreme circumstances, it is a price worth paying.
When we set the normal rule book aside, we are relaxing the requirements for procurement due diligence. We are not setting aside common decency. We are not giving the green light for fraud, and theft. We are not suggesting that because we want to short-cut some of the normal checks and balances that it is OK for a supplier to accept payment and not provide promised products. We are not saying it’s acceptable that PPE products are stolen en route from supplier to customer and we’re not saying that it’s OK for government ministers – the administrators of taxpayers’ funds – to turn their back on procurement professionals, tell them that they know better and award lucrative contracts to their friends, family and political allies who are objectively and demonstrably unqualified to fulfil basic contract requirements.
Proper procurement processes are not a luxury to be adopted when time or circumstances permit.
Just as we see ignorant journalists who see science as geeky giving credence to flat earthers, so we see the same twits on TV and radio offering excuses to fraudsters and letting politicians off the hook with commentary about the fog of war and “unprecedented” times. Politicians must make decisions and they will inevitably make mistakes but the pandemic has also offered them the opportunity to make a dishonest killing (regrettably literally) and there should be no safe place to hide for those who are found to have done so.
Urgency and emergency are not new. Purchasing people know that there are times and circumstances to throw the rule book away
Of course, in an emergency decisive action is necessary – even if, with hindsight, it turns out that some decisions could have been better, action is better than no action. Needs must. But procurement professionals know this. Urgency and emergency are not new. Purchasing people know that there are times and circumstances to throw the rule book away. Just as hindsight will tell us where decisions could have been made better, so will it illuminate the deliberate opportunism. Let’s not be shy to learn some hard lessons so we can do things better next time and equally let us not hold back from holding to account those found to have taken advantage.