By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A top engineer yesterday hailed the draft Public Procurement Bill as a tool that can “remove the veil” and “opaque processes” surrounding the award of multiple government contracts.
Quentin Knowles, the Bahamas Society of Engineers (BSE) president, told Tribune Business that the long-awaited legislation that has been released for a 30-day public consultation seems to promise the creation of an equitable ‘level playing field’ for all bidders on public sector contracts.
Revealing that he knew of companies and entrepreneurs who simply chose not to bid on government tenders because of perceptions they were always awarded to “favoured” rivals, Mr Knowles voiced optimism that the legislation will “go a long way” to boosting competition by expanding the bidding pool.
Describing himself as a small businessman of 30 years standing, the BSE chief said there were “too many forces” ranged against micro, small and medium-sized (MSMEs) in The Bahamas, and expressed hope that the Bill may “counteract” some of these.
Focusing on the construction industry and related professions specifically, Mr Knowles said he also wanted the Bill to encourage the Government to outsource more services and work to the private sector, pointing to the building inspection process and other aspects that have the potential to be “farmed out”.
“From my perspective, public procurement is basically giving equal access to the public to bid on any projects and products the Government may have,” Mr Knowles told this newspaper. “That’s my understanding of what this is all about, and it’s critical for me as a contractor and engineer.
“Procurement is what I do in contracting. That’s what contracting is all about; to secure the best price, product and resources. To give people who are suitably qualified equal access to all available procurement possibilities is going to be critical.
“I think the way it’s done presently, it’s a veil and such an opaque process,” he continued. “It’s not to say things are not being done in a correct way, but this Bill will probably remove that veil, if you will, and I think it will be a benefit not only to the Government but people out there who did not have access to opportunities.”
Complaints and allegations have long swirled over the process for awarding government contracts, with rejected bidders frequently challenging this and the selection of rivals. The Government, though, believes the Public Procurement Bill will both help save taxpayers millions and aid small businesses.
Besides producing better “value for money” through improved transparency and accountability surrounding the award of government contracts, the Bill also stipulates that all government agencies must award a minimum 10 percent of their contracts to Bahamian MSMEs.
Acknowledging that “having to embrace change is sometimes difficult in a government environment”, Mr Knowles said it was “human nature” for persons to deal with companies that they knew and trusted, which sometimes meant rival bids were not properly considered.
“There’s a lot of people that I know of, because of the perception they don’t have a chance to even go after some of these projects, they decide not even to bid even if it’s advertised in the newspaper because they feel there are people who would be favoured,” he added.
“It will go a long way to encouraging people who have not traditionally gone after government work to go after it... I haven’t looked at it [the Bill] in detail, but it seems like a really good thing if it’s properly implemented. That’s another question: Proper implementation will be the key. We have a lot of great laws and regulations on the books, but we sometimes struggle to implement.”
Mr Knowles said the “10 percent minimum” of contracts for small businesses may also help counter perceptions that they lack the resources and capability to undertake government contracts, which ultimately harms their growth and development.
“I’m a small businessman myself,” he told Tribune Business. “There are too many forces against small businesses in this country. Being an entrepreneur for 30 years, there are too many forces. The more this thing is brought into government it could really help counteract some of these negative forces. It is really tough to operate in this country.”
Turning to the Bill’s implications for his own profession, Mr Knowles added: “I am hoping that such a Bill will encourage entities such as the Ministry of Works to outsource more of the work they perform internally.
“For example much of the engineering, architectural, and related services that are currently being performed using internal resources at the Ministry can be easily, though a robust procurement regime, farmed out very successfully to the private sector.
“Substantial benefits would accrue from such a system. Firstly, this could reduce the need to expand the public service. Such an approach would also have the added benefit of building capacity in the private sector, particularly with the MSMEs, spurring entrepreneurship and all the benefits to the economy that would bring.”