Rehabilitation work has been under way at Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH) for the past seven years, frustrating professionals in the health sector, Government, and the public in general.
But while Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has said that a number of factors had contributed to the protraction, he admitted that the public sector procurement process has played a major role.
“Cornwall is a somewhat unique case in that several things have slowed its progress — one of them being that it is a brownfield site, which means that it’s hard to totally grasp the scope of the work because when you start to fix something, you realise that something else needs fixing,” the health minister told the Jamaica Observer.
“Having said that, the process of procuring services has taken quite a long time, but it is not unique to Cornwall. I did a rough estimate of the length of time that we have been involved in procurement, as opposed to working on the Cornwall project, it is almost half the time,” he said.
Tufton is the latest high-profile public servant in recent weeks — the others being Members of Parliament Tova Hamilton, Mikhail Phillips, and Delroy Chuck — who have pointed to the almost stifling effect that the procurement process has been having on projects designed to improve people’s lives.
Tufton explained that the health ministry, like many other government ministries and agencies, has experienced drawbacks with the procurement process. A major concern, he said, has been the length of time it takes for equipment or services to be delivered across the health sector.
“We have had cases where acquiring a large diagnostic piece of equipment takes a year or more to go through the procurement process, and because these things are not in storage, they have to be built, we have to wait another year before it is delivered. So you could end up having a two-year wait between the need for the product, and the delivery,” said Tufton.
The public sector procurement policy is designed to maximise economy and efficiency in procurement; ensure fairness, integrity and public confidence in the procurement process; enhance sustainable development through minimising negative impact on the environment; and foster national growth and development.
However, while individuals within the public sector have acknowledged the need for the process, some officials have expressed frustration at the length of time it takes for projects to be approved.
Tufton explained that procurement requests are sometimes sent back for queries and may also be redirected to the Attorney General’s Office before they can be resubmitted for consideration.
“It just takes a very long time,” he bemoaned.
“There are provisions for emergency procurement and sometimes it works and it has the potential to significantly reduce the process where you can give a justification of the problem. Sometimes, however, that is rejected by the different layers of bureaucracy that it has to go through,” Tufton added.
At the same time, he stated that the different layers of bureaucracy in the system also slow down acquiring what is needed.
“A part of it is also the understanding of the process, so I’m not prepared to blame just the process as the cause of the length of time, because I do believe that sometimes there isn’t sufficient capacity at the level of those who are managing over the process. This means that mistakes can be made at times, or clarity is required because of uncertainties and that slows down the process even further,” Tufton said.
Additionally, he said that public sector workers somewhat shy away from engaging in the procurement process out of fear that they may be accused of wrongdoings.
“I have had civil servants come to me and are literally super cautious… because that fear of reputational damage is greater than the need to solve the problem that the procurement process is intended to solve,” he said.
With all of these factors combined, Tufton lamented that the public procurement process is “a lot less efficient” and is far too focused on the process itself. He stated that governments are being short-changed based on the length of time taken for the procurement process to be completed.
“What you have, as I have interpreted it, is a system that allows political cycles, under the constitution, to be five years and a procurement process could take up to two and half years, which is half that time. To me, it really compromises or undermines the capacity of any administration in power and it is a real challenge. We have seen cases of that in health,” he said.
Tufton, however, pointed out that he is not laying blame on those who are working to ensure that there is transparency and fairness in how taxpayers’ money is spent.
“Let me just say that I am not suggesting that those who preside over the bureaucracy are to be blamed because they will respond, and correctly so, that they are doing their job and the procurement rules require these things to take place,” the health minister told the Sunday Observer.
At the same time, he suggested that the procurement process be shortened to effectively benefit those who need the “solution”, while the audit function should be improved to ensure that there is value for money. This, Tufton said, will see government ministries and agencies being able to carry out their functions within an appropriate timeline, while also being held accountable by the Public Procurement Commission.
“I am not promoting compromising the value for money, what I am saying is that right now the solution gets dragged out in the process and people suffer as a consequence,” said Tufton.