Re­turn to ten­der

The Compass - - EDITORIAL -

The road to hell is paved with good in­ten­tions. A big­ger dan­ger is that all our roads might be paved that way.

Last Mon­day, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a plan to re­vamp the Pub­lic Ten­der Act. It’s a prom­ise gov­ern­ments have been mak­ing in this prov­ince for years, but the prom­ises haven’t been kept. To put it bluntly, it’s not a very sexy is­sue for vot­ers and or­di­nary mem­bers of the pub­lic, even though the gov­ern­ment spends some $4 bil­lion a year on ev­ery­thing from school books to pave­ment to di­ag­nos­tic med­i­cal equip­ment.

De­vis­ing a sys­tem that brings more value for that $4 bil­lion is a valiant goal - but the plan also has a few risks. The gov­ern­ment wants to move away from the po­si­tion that the low­est bid should be the only mea­sure of a win­ning bid, and move in­stead to the con­cept that the gov­ern­ment should try to find the bid that’s the best value. Good luck with that. At least one as­pect of the pro­posed changes is a good start.

For years, some of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s most lu­cra­tive con­tracts - among them, le­gal and con­sult­ing work - haven’t gone through the ten­der process at all. The ar­gu­ment has al­ways been that low­est price isn’t an ac­cu­rate mea­sure for the best con­sult­ing work, and that’s led to ques­tion­able con­tract awards, with al­le­ga­tions about work be­ing handed out on the ba­sis of who you know, not what you know.

The pro­posed changes would bring that work un­der the pub­lic ten­der­ing um­brella, and that’s a good thing - con­sult­ing work should al­ways be done by the best peo­ple for the job, rather than the ones who have do­nated to the right po­lit­i­cal party.

But other changes to the ten­der process will face some crit­i­cal hur­dles.

The prob­lem is the ad­di­tion of any kind of sub­jec­tiv­ity to the process. Cal­cu­lat­ing the low­est price per ten­der - and, by and large, award­ing the con­tract to the low­est-price ten­der that can meet the spec­i­fi­ca­tions - is far eas­ier to ap­ply, and to po­lice, than hav­ing some­one di­vine the best value.

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment faces law­suits reg­u­larly un­der the cur­rent sys­tem ques­tion­ing whether bid­ders were prop­erly qual­i­fied or dis­qual­i­fied, and whether the process was fair and trans­par­ent for all bid­ders. Even in a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward sys­tem with­out sub­jec­tiv­ity, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment loses a fair num­ber of pub­lic ten­der­ing cases.

Beauty - and value - can be in the eye of the be­holder, and sub­jec­tive picks of the “best” bid could po­ten­tially have even greater im­pli­ca­tions for law­suits against the gov­ern­ment, es­pe­cially if crony­ism man­ages to worm its way into gov­ern­ment’s picks.

The bot­tom line? The selections have to be made with this prov­ince’s best in­ter­ests at heart. And that’s not some­thing that any party in power in this prov­ince has had a great track record of de­liv­er­ing.

This ed­i­to­rial orig­i­nally ap­peared in The Tele­gram

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