INFORMATION and Broadcasting Services Minister Dora Siliya has defended government’s intention to improve the Public Procurement Act of 2008, saying this move will close loopholes which cause wastage of public resources.

Reacting a News Diggers! editorial opinion titled “It’s pointless to enact procurement laws that you don’t follow”, Siliya argued that amending the law was the first step to sorting out the problem.

“We need a constitutional office for public procurement so that when we set the standard for procurement, even when you procure anything, even paper, somebody has to say, ‘you are being wasteful here,’ even when you are buying water or paper. Right now, the Public Procurement Office is not constitutional. But the Minister of Finance (Dr Bwalya Ng’andu) has received presentations that, maybe this office should be constitutional like the Auditor General, so that people can follow up on why procurement was not done properly here. Without that, all we are having is just disorderly whistle-blowing because people don’t understand it. So, what government has done in the new law that we are proposing is that we have strengthened the Public Procurement Authority, but people are saying that that’s not enough, you even need to strengthen the DG’s office so that it becomes a constitutional office. And government is listening,” Siliya said in an interview in Lusaka.

She observed that the procurement law in Zambia was not well written.

“I think government disagrees with the opinion that, ‘why are we doing it when nothing changes’ because the very reason it’s being done is as a result of a response from various stakeholders, including those within government that something needs to change with procurement for us to provide confidence. As the Zambia Procurement Association was one of the people who have been in the lead to pushing that the reason we keep hearing of challenges with procurement in Zambia is because the law is not well written. And of course, even within government, people said there are some lacunas in the procurement system in Zambia. So, unless we improve it, we are not going to give Zambians value for money,” she said.

“So, this is the reason that the Ministry of Finance has pushed that let us change the law. Some of the lacunas are that (i) there is no benchmarking in the current law. For example, if a pen in the Ministry of Information goes at K2 and then in the Ministry of Energy, for example, goes at K5, then at Zesco it goes at K10, you can continue to say, ‘why did you buy a pen at Zesco at K10 and then at Ministry of Energy at K50? It must be corruption.’ As long as they followed the law of three quotations and in those three quotations, the law does not say that you have to buy the cheapest. They have to give you a reason at that time as they see it fit that this is the price we want. So, they have not broken the law. But people will say in the newspapers: ‘there is corruption.’ But people will tell you that look at the law, it was followed.”

She said government had drafted a law, which was meant to strengthen the office of public procurement so that it provided benchmarks.

“And this is why, even when many cases have gone to court, there has been almost no evidence because what people have been projecting are perceptions and yet the law has not been broken. The government realised that there is a challenge here [and] we need to have benchmarking, meaning that if we are saying that government always procures paper, wherever they are procuring paper in government, there must be at least a price within range. And somebody needs to provide that benchmarking. So, in the new law, government is saying that, ‘let us strengthen public procurement and the Public Procurement Office so that they should be providing benchmarks. If a 100Km road in Lusaka costs this much, why should another 100Km road in a different province cost differently? Of course, the reason could be because this one is in an urban area and the other in a rural area, but they must be within the range. But right now, the law doesn’t provide for that,” she said.

Siliya insisted that it was irregular that there was currently no procurement oversight office.

“So, even if you complain and write a big headline and say, ‘no, this one here costs this and why is this other one vying at this price?’ It’s just an academic argument because the law doesn’t provide for that. Government is saying, ‘no, there must be guidelines in procurement in terms of the price benchmarking.’ Secondly, oversight. Right now, we are only concerned about after money has been spent through the Auditor General’s Office, but it is also important that we look at the Office of the Public Procurement so that somebody is responsible for public procurement in government,” she said.

“Right now, procurement is done at various levels, but there is no particular office that has oversight so that when something goes wrong, the public knows that the person to blame is this one. And this is why it is always this minister, the PS, this DC, this director, because the Office of the Public Procurement has not been strengthened. This law needs to be strengthened so that even when citizens have a complaint about procurement, they know where to go.”

And Siliya explained that the objective of changing the law was to ensure that government equally got enhanced value for money.

“The focus of the law is to ensure that there is value for money for government. Value for money also does not mean that we buy this so that next year we are doing the same job. If you say that, ‘there is a 100Km road, just because somebody was so low and they do a bad job and we are going to do that road again in two years,’ then again, that is corruption on its own because it’s not value for money. Value for money means that there must be public procurement, but we must ensure that both in terms of price and quality in terms of what we are buying are consummate. Right now, RDA (Road Development Agency) can just set their standard and procure. What about in the Ministry of Education when they are constructing schools, what is the standard?” asked Siliya.