Thursday, 12 May 2016

Anti-Corruption Summit - Is Afghanistan's Procurement Strategy right for others?

Linked to today's Anti-Corruption summit in London, the Prime Minister's Office have published 'Against Corruption: A Collection of Essays.  One of the essays, by Afghanistan's President, specifically addresses procurement.

In that essay President Ghani argues that a failure of individual and institutional accountability is at the heart of corruption; that is compounded by fragmented institutions. The panacea, to Ghani, is strong political leadership:
In fragmented systems, only strong, national political leadership can tackle corruption at its roots. This is because only the top leadership can look across the different areas and ministries where corruption happens, in order to provide an effective agenda for reform. By demonstrating top commitment through positive action, even fragmented systems can build coalition with internal and external reformers.
 Ghani reports that public procurement in Afghanistan suffers from:

  • bid rigging, including, bids received from non-existent companies; 
  • buyers sharing cost estimates 'for a fee'; 
  • conflicts of interest in the decision making process; 
  • coercion of bidders to alter or withdraw competitive bids;  
  • specifying for sole supply; 
  • acceptance of deliveries which are not of the specified quality.
Let's be honest, these are not problems unique to Afghanistan, nor the public sector alone - they are common in many businesses throughout the world and few can be sure they are completely immune or risk free. 

The Afghan strategy to combat the above is "formation of a National Procurement Council (NPC) to review all high-value contracts and the consolidation of construction contracts through two specialised agencies."  The National Procurement Council is chaired by the President himself!  This overseeing is claimed to have saved $350m in the first year.  Ironically we are told though that punishment of those guilty of corruption in procurement has been almost negligible. 

No-one could deny that public procurement in Afghanistan has become a 'top table' issue and I congratulate the President on his commitment.  However, I do question the strategy: 
  1. Responding to institutional corruption through concentrating oversight on a few at the top table, or even two 'centralised buying bodies' is well meaning but the Brazilian President's current predicament may be worth considering and learning from?  What if corruption is at the top?  Perhaps Afghanistan could consider what risk management approach is applied and how there can be independent scrutiny of 'the executive'?
  2. I also think it is naive to think all procurement can be addressed or policed by 'the few'.
  3. I don't actually believe fragmentation of governance is a cause, in fact, the tiered government system of the UK between Central, Devolved and local government may serve as a useful demonstration that it is not. Local democratic accountability may well provide part of the solution.
  4. Ghani implies a culture change is required - how is that actually being addressed and managed?
  5. Simplifying, standardising and automation of procurement processes, led by the Top, is an essential part of the solution, but that has to include clearly defined segregation of duties. That is not referred to by Ghani but perhaps is on the agenda.  
  6. The procurement systems need to be fit for purpose, make compliance easy and abuse hard - better use of eProcurement tools can spread the load and enable the NPC to focus where it is necessary.
  7. I didn't see any mention in the essay of the performance management structure, given that personal accountability is identified as part of the solution. I think that should be addressed otherwise rhetoric and an essay will be the only legacy.
  8. Ghani has implied that the consequences of being caught need to be addressed; I would argue that unless the risks, penalties and probability of being caught outweigh the potential rewards of fraud, bribery and corruption, the Afghan strategy is merely chasing the wind and unlikely to succeed.

I am genuinely impressed that Ghani has been prepared to lead the reform of procurement in Afghanistan, and I wish him well, I look forward to hearing of progress in a few years time. Hold on, what are the plans to review the effectiveness of his strategy?

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