The Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly has come under scrutiny and has “serious questions to answer” according to Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, over his meeting last December with Labour TD Brendan Ryan and Task Community Care, a company that was the successful bidder in a state tender.
Claims of “serious irregularities”
It has been suggested that minister Kelly may have violated the rules over state procurement in Ireland. The tender in question is related to the Seniors Alert Scheme, which arranged for the provision of alarm systems to elderly people throughout the country. The meeting took place only days after the deadline for tenders had ended, and before the evaluation process had been completed.
The tender process was temporarily suspended two days after the meeting took place between Kelly and Ryan. According to the department, this pause was put in place to ensure that the meeting did not affect the procurement process. The process was found to be compliant with national and EU guidelines and regulations, and was subsequently resumed - with state agency Pobal choosing Task as the successful bidder.
Lack of consistency
With a tender process that was likely to have had over 40 respondents - spending upwards of €200k in competing for this contract - it’s crucial that companies can believe there is a level playing field. While it’s possible that no problematic conversation about the tender took place (as has been maintained by the department) the companies who compete in these processes, and whose business is impacted by these decisions, deserve to have the rules applied fairly and consistently. Quite simply, this is a meeting that should have never taken place.
An Ombudsman needed to ensure transparent arbitration
This is yet another argument for a procurement Ombudsman to be set up, a point I highlighted in the TenderScout Annual Report earlier this year. I laid out the case that a procurement Ombudsman is needed to ensure transparent arbitration. Transparency is the single biggest issue impacting on confidence in the procurement process, and ensuring a fair system which does not find itself open to scrutiny when a company feels it has been wrongly passed over for a particular contract. I went on further to recommend that the Ombudsman should have the power to arbitrate in disputes and ensure that both the spirit and the letter of procurement guidelines are upheld.
The best outcome for transparency
In the case of this tender, it’s clear to me that the process should have been scrapped, and then run again under the same terms and conditions. This wouldn’t have resulted in any major additional work for SMEs, as they could largely submit the same documentation. Although there would have been a cost implication to the procurement authority (who would have had to re-evaluate submissions, which is a cost to the tax payer) this would surely have been a better outcome for transparency.
As it is, we have a contract process that’s in dispute, and a case that will only reaffirm the prejudices about public procurement that SMEs already hold. This is an issue the OGP have been struggling to overcome - that public tendering is not transparent. There is no doubt in my mind that the outcome of this latest case will only lead to yet greater mistrust and uncertainty in relation to the process, and as a result there will be less supplier diversity for the government in the future. What’s most frustrating of all is that this whole thing could have been easily avoided!