This column is a humble attempt to open up our minds to the fact though we are in the 21st century with so many technological opportunities, some of our internal processes are still archaic.
When making economic progress, what really matters is our competitive substance and system innovation capabilities. However the exact needs perhaps are not exactly understood by the practical system constructs which are applicable today especially within the public sector. We have not been able to adopt by way of operational adjustments to the technical innovations that surround us.
A case in point is rules and pathways in current logistics and public procurement systems, which is one area that needs definite attention. A general feeling among many and definitely within the scientific community is that procurement systems are seriously hampering progress. We must understand that the surest way of improving efficiency of an event is shaving time taken between stages and this is true for a production process or for the provision of a service.
Consider the mobile app introduced by Barclays prior to the London Olympics. That enabled people to pay by cheque and sending a smartphone image of it to their bank, reducing the time taken to clear a payment from six to two days. Many such examples abound outside.
Your creativity exercised within an ethical framework should always be in achieving this objective for the system in which you operate. When all systems indicate a passion for innovation, there is definitely a different feeling in the air! However, can we always innovate and act creatively when tight systems without flexibility exist and when ‘yes buts’ or ‘no, I am afraid we cannot do that here’ are standard responses? The standard procedure is valued above everything else and the dictum of blind allegiance to the set procedure or otherwise dire consequence of being hauled in front of committees, etc.
Procurement is a supply chain activity and is the acquisition of goods, services or works from an outside external source with a competitive selection process. It is important that the goods, services or works are appropriate to the needs of the purchaser in terms of quality and quantity, time, and location and that, they are procured at the best possible cost.
The best possible cost in our action usually means the lowest bid and this simple rationality too have many pit falls. It is not only the lowest purchase price but the total cost of ownership that needs to be taken into consideration. National procurement guidelines exist which are intended to promote fair and open competition while minimising exposure to fraud and collusion.
I was prompted to write this column in a public spirited manner having heard two comments and remarks from two of my colleagues recently. One of the comments was that if we can get the national procurement process streamlined and efficient, the country can easily achieve an additional 2% GDP growth without any additional effort.
My colleague was quite convinced that he was right in making this statement. He was coming out with this forceful comment after having gone on a monitoring mission to a hill country university where the researcher (a Senior Professor) had not been able to make any headway for some time due to the fact that the tender committee being populated with a local government official outside the institution and it had been quite difficult to get the whole team assembled to fulfil requirements. This has led to many months of frustrating delays when funders would be expecting results within a quarter. This unfortunate delay for the researcher as well as for the system had been simply because of a set of procedures which offers no alternative pathways.
"We need to seriously examine existing rules and systems and a refreshed commitment to efficiency and effectiveness is needed. As had been told many a time by the research community, the procurement dilemma is seriously hampering them. As was shown, it is not confined to the researcher only as the process is applicable across all activities. It is time that those who can do something actually act proactively rather than always asking for proposals"
A frustrating process
The second comment came from a Head of a department in a university and is actually common to all within the public university system. The absurd situation facing him had been for getting an approval for spending Rs. 5,000 (Yes! Rs. 5,000), the Head of the department had to call for three quotations. Meanwhile, five quotations are required to make a decision over a Rs. 50,000 expenditure, which is really a frustrating process.
A student research project support, which had to be developed, run and completed within a couple of months, is well nigh impossible when an individual has to abide by such regulations. This is procurement and it had to be carried out as per regulations and directives emphasising the need are circulated in addition reminding all their bounded duty. The responsibility of spending public money appears to have been taken up very well. The little issue on the importance of activities on time and results are pushed to the background. Little do we realise that we have actually delivered the death knell to activities such as research and development.
We may have developed the process to ensure that right practices ensue as well as justifiable end result occurs. The process has been laid out diligently and even time periods between each step calculated and indicated. This analytical exercise enables one to identify the typical time taken when one embarks on a process, which is sure to help him on project planning and execution.
There perhaps had never been any emphasis on ensuring right results not without entailing excessive time costs! Time costs of most of the exercises when religiously followed takes so much time and energy and when it is actually the time to start work on the real activity, one is quite exhausted.
When one really seriously considers the possible permutations, one should get really worried. In this day and age when the world moves at such a rapid pace, when we talked of businesses now being carried out in a world where the sun never sets, we should feel the sting of the time tragedy.
I present an extract from the process of securing the services of a consultant as per the guideline. The process is well laid out and each step indicated. Multiple committees will sit throughout this process and each member had to be formally approved and appointed. When making decisions all have to be present and sign in together. If a professional well-versed in procurement procedures exists or readily accessible, the process may be achieved on prescribed time as on the document. This too is a luxury on many an occasion.
The example indicates that the particular process highlighted simply eats so much time and energy for an appointment of an individual to a task and that the actual work actually may need very much less time by the individual at the end. Much ado about nothing!
All of who may not have executive power are subjected to these laws and conditions in the public sector. It is important to realise that a strong and a vibrant public sector is vital for a country to have as it is the public sector that would look at the wider aspects of an issue and be responsible to the public at large. This type of diligence and attitude it is difficult to expect from the private sector due to the very nature of the private needs and priorities.
A shackled public sector thus is useless. A dynamic and an equally accountable public sector is a boon to the nation. What is felt by the way of current procurement is that we are restricting the system and certainly curtailing the dynamism. Perhaps these were the reasoning that led to Joseph Schumpeter to come out with his theories of Creative Destruction in his day and age. We know that he was successful in pushing his theories forward and making them practical.
We need to seriously examine existing rules and systems and a refreshed commitment to efficiency and effectiveness is needed. As had been told many a time by the research community, the procurement dilemma is seriously hampering them. As was shown, it is not confined to the researcher only as the process is applicable across all activities. It is time that those who can do something actually act proactively rather than always asking for proposals.
The feedback on the existing system has been written about over the years in many ways. It is no secret that procurement and associated frustrations had led to brain drain too. Continuous ignorance of the ground realities may mean that we may be going down the road of procurement which in reality may be procuring tickets that take us out of existence.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on email@example.com.]