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Transparency of ICT procurement is in the interests of the public and vendors alike

Two Business people working together on laptop meeting with technology

A completely transparent procurement process would go a long way to ensuring that public sector projects are free from undue influence, writes Darryl Carlton.

The Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has released a report entitled “ICT procurement – what are the corruption risks?1. In the report, the CCC advises departments to “be alert to the possibilities of ‘grooming’ of staff by potential vendors or other interested parties”.

The CCC report identifies ICT procurement as being highly susceptible to corrupt practices and cites their research, which identifies many instances of individuals with influence over ICT procurement being groomed by ICT vendors. Some of the identified malpractices include:

  • Government employees registering businesses with a view to receiving outsourced parcels of work
  • Employees subcontracting to or assisting vendors to win government contracts
  • Recommending vendors with which employees have a financial interest
  • Failing to take basic precautions to ensure conflicts of interest are declared
  • Failing to declare relationships and friendships with vendors that have been rewarded ICT contracts

This is a very difficult balancing act. Vendors are well aware that winning business from the government requires the vendor to establish a relationship with the department and key decision-makers in the department. This raises the question: ‘at what point does selling slip across the line and become grooming?’

A similar issue has been observed by the Warwick District Council in the UK which published a paper2, within their council policies and plans section entitled Fraud Within the Public Sector.  In their web page, they state that “fraud costs the taxpayer billions of pounds each year. Detected cases of fraud and corruption are on the increase and all local authorities are likely to be affected in some way by fraudulent or corrupt activity.”

‘Situational Incompetence’

Our research3 suggests that the greatest risk comes not from technical experts in the ICT procurement chain, rather it comes from senior staff placed into positions of influence and authority for which they lack technical understanding and competence. It is these senior individuals that are most exposed to being unreasonably influenced.

‘Situational Incompetence’ applies when an otherwise experienced executive is placed in a position of authority or accountability for which they lack experience, training or specific skills. In this new role, they are effectively incompetent and incapable of providing or recognising reasoned advice, guidance or suggestions.

Situational Incompetence has implications for how leaders are selected for complex tasks requiring specialist IT domain knowledge and technical competence, it may also apply to the disciplines requiring specific knowledge of the technology in that domain (eg: accounting, medicine, engineering, science).

Engelbrecht et al (2017)4 suggest that inexperienced managers will seek advice and guidance from inappropriate sources. Kruger and Dunning (2009)5 offer the observation that the Unskilled and Unware (Ryvkin, Kraic et al, 2012)6 are incapable of identifying their own failings, incapable of independently observing and learning from the competence of others, and incapable of identifying competence in others.

The CCC report has suggested that various steps be taken to mitigate against corrupt procurement practices, including:

  • Transparent and accountable contracting practices
  • Detailed planning processes
  • Anticipate potential conflicts and manage accordingly
  • Scrutinise applications for secondary employment for conflicts
  • Challenge the oft-cited “urgency” as a reason for optimised procurement processes

These findings by the CCC are not inconsistent with reports from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) which has published its annual report into project performance7 identifying the major causes of project failure, and the actions they are taking to reduce negative outcomes of significant projects.

In a blog8 on this subject, the CEO of IPA, identifies four main ways that the IPA is addressing project failure:

  • Always involve delivery expertise in policy development
  • Get an independent assessment of deliverability before announcements and commitments are made
  • Tailor announcements according to the degree of delivery confidence
  • Understand and embrace uncertainty

Involve the technology experts much earlier

The first two of these recommended actions would be positive actions to address perceived corrupt practices in ICT procurement: Involve the technology experts much earlier in the project lifecycle.

In most government projects, the technologists and project delivery personnel are engaged after the contracts have been signed and they are tasked with the implementation for what had been agreed between vendors and department officers.

The primary relationship between the vendor and the government agency is usually held not by technically competent persons, rather they are most often sales people. Their job is precisely what the Crime and Corruption Commission is concerned with – building relationships to ensure procurement decisions are taken which benefit the vendor. That is how the salesperson is financially compensated, and the vendor measures its success by growth in revenue not in the success of project outcomes.

The anecdotal evidence would suggest that vendors are not inconvenienced in the slightest by poor project outcomes. The viability of a project and the likelihood of achieving a successful outcome needs to be of far greater concern at the procurement stage. Technically competent people, accountable first and foremost to the public sector and with responsibility for a successful outcome, need to be able to challenge the sales and marketing claims and be involved in the very earliest stages of the procurement process.

Get an independent assessment

“In the same way that academic papers are subject to the peer review process, government procurements need to be subject to peer review by qualified and independent advisors.”

The second recommendation of IPA is to “get an independent assessment”. Independent assessments are rarely if ever undertaken, and if there is a review it is usually performed by consulting firms that are (a) dependent upon the department for future contracts, and (b) engaged in larger and more lucrative delivery projects that they don’t want to jeopardise.

The public sector needs to cultivate a set completely independent advisors and reviewers that have no opportunity for winning the larger delivery contracts. In the same way that academic papers are subject to the peer review process, government procurements need to be subject to peer review by qualified and independent advisors. These reviews need to have rights of veto where the claims being made cannot be substantiated.

It is often stated that the best disinfectant is sunlight. A completely transparent procurement process would go a long way to ensuring that public sector projects are free from undue influence. There should be nothing commercial-in-confidence about the expenditure of public monies. If every transaction was open to scrutiny, no individual vendor would be unduly impacted by disclosure. Complete transparency is the only antidote to the potential for the grooming identified by the Crime and Corruption Commission.

Transparency of ICT procurement is in the interests of all vendors. It is not just the public sector or taxpayer that is impacted by corrupt or incompetent practices. Good vendors, small businesses endeavouring to build their business and generate employment are negatively impacted by these practices. Transparency provides a level playing field from which all stakeholders will benefit.

Footnotes

1. http://www.ccc.qld.gov.au/research-and-publications

2. https://www.warwickdc.gov.uk/info/20733/council_policies_and_plans/393/fraud_and_corruption_council

3. Carlton, D., (2017) ‘Competence versus Confidence in IT Project Leadership’, Journal of Modern Project Management Vol 5, No. 1, http://www.journalmodernpm.com/index.php/jmpm/article/view/240

4. Engelbrecht, J., et al. (2017). “The influence of business managers’ IT competence on IT project success.” International Journal of Project Management 35: 994-1005.

5. Kruger, J. and D. Dunning (2009). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: how difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Psychology 1: 30-46.

6. Ryvkin, D., et al. (2012). “Are the unskilled doomed to remain unaware?” Journal of Economic Psychology 33: 1012-1031.

7. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/infrastructure-and-projects-authority-annual-report-2018

8. https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2018/03/28/crossing-the-valley-of-death-how-we-can-bridge-the-gap-between-policy-creation-and-delivery/

Author Bio

Darryl Carlton

Darryl Carlton is an Industry Fellow at Swinburne University. Darryl has spent over 40 years in the practice of information technology. He was the founder, CEO and Chief Architect of the world's first SaaS ERP. He was Head of IT Strategy for Telstra, Head of Business Process Engineering for Optus, Chief Executive Officer for BizTone.com, Chief Information Officer for the Environment Protection Agency, IT strategy advisor to several government departments, and Head of Applications Development for one of the world’s largest internet service providers. He is completing a PhD on the subject: 'Understanding Cobb’s Paradox: a multi-grounded theory case study of IT project failure in the public sector'.