[OPINION] The perils of government procurement in the pandemic

Niel Anthony Borja
[OPINION] The perils of government procurement in the pandemic
'Without having to go through the process of competitive public bidding, the dangers of corruption, overpricing, and counterfeit goods will just be a door knock away'

As countries attempt to overcome the spread of COVID-19, the Philippines faces the equally challenging task of providing life-saving medical equipment to health personnel and patients. Such equipment, however, are not readily available due to their sudden increase in demand worldwide. Likewise, their procurement has grown to be more complex owing to the exigencies of the circumstances. Some businesses have temporarily ceased operating because of inadequate workforce, while government agencies and suppliers are saddled with the restrictions of time, place, and technology as they respond to the crisis.

To promptly address these matters, Republic Act No. (RA) 11469, also known as the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” was enacted. 

The Bayanihan Act and government procurement

With the effectivity of the Bayanihan Act, some crisis-related procurement activities are now exempt from the application of competitive public bidding procedures found in RA 9184, otherwise known as the “Government Procurement Reform Act.”

In line with this, the Philippine Government Procurement Policy Board issued GPPB Resolution No 03-2020 which provides a convenient way to procure goods and services during a state of national emergency like the current pandemic. It allows the procuring entity to dispense with the conventional mode of public bidding by directly negotiating/contracting with a qualified supplier through Negotiated Procurement.

Definitely, the new guidelines have given the government ample room to operate efficiently, especially since time is of the essence and thus urgent action is needed. 

Negotiated procurement v. competitive public bidding 

While the foregoing demonstrate a significant development in Philippine government procurement, it is important to note that such optimism should never be conflated with certitude. There being no definite timeline for the pandemic, it is only apt to consider the sustainability of Negotiated Procurement in the long run, specifically for purposes of transparency and public accountability. 

The reason for this is such mode of procurement will likely remain susceptible to abuses, including graft and corruption. Moreover, the procured products will place the government at a great disadvantage particularly in terms of their condition, price, and overall quality. (READ: Despite lack of DOH guidelines, Duterte orders purchase of COVID-19 rapid test kits)

To illustrate, there are already reports of inaccurate and defective testing kits going around, abruptly halting the testing of “persons under investigations,” as well as “high-risk and immuno-compromised individuals.”Just recently, allegations of corruption and price gouging of medical equipment have likewise surfaced, prompting the government to commence an investigation on the matter. Surely, without having to go through the process of competitive public bidding, the dangers of corruption, overpricing, and counterfeit goods will just be a door knock away. (READ: Ombudsman probes Duque, DOH for alleged coronavirus anomalies)

Given the above, it seems that reverting to the conventional mode of public bidding is not only imperative but also inevitable. However, one would argue that such mode should barely have face-to-face interactions, and hence, a competitive public bidding using the Electronic Procurement (E-Procurement) platform might be a viable option worth considering. 

The E-Procurement platform

Essentially, the E-Procurement platform utilizes information and communications technology in the procurement process with the Philippine Government Electronic System (PhilGEPS) serving as the portal for “the primary and definitive source of information on government procurement.” 

Notably, even before the pandemic, all procuring entities have been mandated to use the PhilGEPS. Despite this, the benefits of E-Procurement have yet to be realized for a myriad of reasons. The same could be attributed to one’s lack of awareness of and readiness with the System. It could also be ascribed to our inadequate broadband infrastructures, thereby resulting in limited internet access and slow internet speed. 

In any event, studies show that as of 2011, around 1,500 government agencies remain unregistered with the PhilGEPS, and that over 80% of the local government units are not yet connected with the System. Further, over 50% of government suppliers do not use PhilGEPS, whereas the registered ones fail to even use it.

Now that we are dealing with the intricacies of the pandemic, the importance of digital technology becomes considerably pronounced. Thus, addressing the foregoing concerns is a good opportunity to maximize the potential of E-Procurement for future use. As for the PhilGEPS, its composition and scope of authority can also be revisited to make its services more accessible to various suppliers. Concomitantly, this will pave way in updating the inventory of goods and services that may be subject to “Repeat Orders” or “Shopping” in anticipation of another lockdown taking place.  

Concluding remarks

As the country tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only high time to begin embracing the “new normal.” This includes doing long-term planning and investment in digital technology. For government procurement, there must be efforts to update all data, provide relevant training to personnel, encourage or incentivize small and mid-size enterprises to register and participate, and maintain proper coordination between government agencies and suppliers. Above all, our leaders should constantly observe effective policy implementation impelled by strong political will to achieve transparency, competition, efficiency, and public accountability in the procurement process. – Rappler.com

Niel Anthony Borja obtained his Juris Doctorate degree from the Ateneo Law School and is now a student in the Master of Laws (LL.M.) Program in the University of the Philippines. He is engaged in private law practice.

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