A Window of Interactions

Looking at his betel leaf stained teeth and shabby appearance, no one would take the person seriously. Rather, one would take a furtive glance and wonder why this person is sitting in the front row among many well-dressed government officials. Until he would confidently contest the speaker’s claim.

In front of a number of high level government officials from Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) and Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU), who had just stated that the introduction of electronic procurement would bring a revolutionary change to Bangladesh’s procurement experience, the man stood up and made his point in a casual tone and in colloquial Bangla.

‘I disagree when you claim that e-GP is a way to introduce fairness and competition in the procurement process. Nowadays it has become very difficult to get the work done on time. A very important construction work in our city has been going on which needs to be finished within due time to secure additional funds, but the contractor has been very slow in delivering the work. If it had been assigned to a local contractor, we could have had some control over him and could make him deliver the work on time. However, since he is not local, we can’t do anything about it. Isn’t it wrong that e-GP allowed bidders from other areas to participate? If they are not local, they are not sincere and when they are not around, we can’t really make things move.’

The IMED secretary took the question seriously and responded strongly. He provided many examples of procuring entities facing problems due to their lack of efficiencies regarding contract management. For instance, he referred to the usual delays that take place in the initial phases of a contract, which ultimately delays the entire process and leads to PEs rush towards the end. Soon after he finished, many other participants started discussing both positive and negative sides of the existing procurement system.

Discussions regarding the presence of corruption and political influence in public procurement system has long been a taboo subject. However, in this forum government officials shared that they also fall victim to it. Thanks to this candid discussion, the otherwise formal event transformed into a lively forum where organizers struggled to finish on time.

This is a scene from the Sylhet Divisional Forum, which took place under the Citizen Engagement (CE) sub-component of Digitizing Implementation Monitoring and Public Procurement Project (DIMAPPP). CPTU and BRAC Institute of governance and Development (BIGD) jointly host one divisional forum in each division. Although the level of enthusiasm varies, these forums generally provide an unconventional space for interactions among a diverse groups of stakeholders. The forums are designed to ensure participation of administrators and the government officials working in the locality, the local government representatives, bidders, journalists, lawyers, NGO workers, university teachers, and the citizen group members who are currently engaged in the monitoring of the development work under DIMAPPP. A team of government officials who are involved in policy making and regulating procuring activities of the country also fly from Dhaka to join these forums.

The objective of the forum is mainly to inform the local citizens about the government’s citizen engagement initiatives in the local development work. However, with all the stakeholders discussing the problems and prospects of the procurement system, the platform also generates constructive debates and discussions.

The platform is unique in nature. Usually, in traditional government forums, the government officials hesitate to open up themselves in front of the senior officials due to prevalent bureaucratic culture. However, we see a different case in the DIMAPPP forums. The presence of various stakeholders with diverse opinions help them to open up. They really enjoy the participatory group discussions and quite enthusiastically present their own views in front of the forum. Bidders, whose voices usually remain unheard, also dare to speak their mind given the openness of the discussion forum.

Citizens too benefit from this. They read about the irregularities in the development work and observe them, although they barely get an insider view of how procurement policies are made or the projects are managed. The divisional forums gives them a peek inside the system. The lessons they take home from these forums  tend to contribute to citizen’s further engagement to the development process thereby making the  procurement process  more accountable and demand driven. Most importantly, the central level procuring authorities get to about the field level observations from a number of different stakeholders, which, one hopes, will contribute to the procurement reform of the country.

Syeda Salina Aziz is a Program Manager at BIGD.