Too many businesses are reluctant to blow the whistle when they have a bad experience with a federal government department, says Canada’s government procurement watchdog.
Frank Brunetta, the federal government’s procurement ombudsman, said he is concerned suppliers aren’t coming forward because they fear reprisals.
“The office has heard of supplier reticence to disclose the names of departments with which they have procurement concerns, for fear of being excluded from future business opportunities,” Brunetta wrote in the 2010/11 annual report quietly tabled in the House of Commons this week.
“I find this issue particularly troubling.”
Brunetta said he plans to keep an eye on the situation.
“Whether this reluctance is rooted in suppliers perceptions, or past experiences, this is an issue I plan to closely monitor and better understand in the upcoming months.”
In his first annual report since being appointed procurement ombudsman in January, Brunetta says the government has made significant progress in improving the way it handles the $20-billion worth of procurements it makes each year, but improvements are still necessary.
“This is particularly so in the training of program managers who are often responsible for articulating the types of goods and services required in critical procurement documents. In the procurement process, the clarity, precision and accuracy of these documents is paramount as they influence other ‘downstream’ procurement activities and decisions.”
Brunetta said the complaints sent to his office also show that the government has work to do when it comes to communicating.
“Whether the concerns stem from a department’s reluctance to reveal ‘too much’ information (in its zeal to protect the integrity of the procurement process) or from something as routine as failing to show the common courtesy we all expect by returning a telephone call, the office hears of numerous cases which escalate due to poor interaction between the parties.”
Brunetta said his own office can, and should, play a bigger role in improving “fairness, openness and transparency in procurement through education, facilitation and investigation.”
Brunetta said the procurement ombudsman’s office was contacted 329 times during the past year. He said 110 of those calls were to file complaints — 81 of them concerning the awarding of a contract, 23 of them concerning the administration of a contract and six complaints about other things.
Complaints about the administration of contracts tended to focus on problems with payment, such as late payments, and problems, such as the government department asking for extras or altering the contract.
Complaints about the way contracts were awarded cited unfair evaluation processes, non-competitive procurement strategies or statements of work that were unclear or tended to favour a particular bidder.
Brunetta said his office was also called upon to help some businesses better understand how federal government procurement works.
“The volume of calls the office receives suggests that federal organizations need to better educate potential suppliers to enable them to submit responsive proposals for inclusion in procurement vehicles such as standing offers and supply arrangements.”
The ombudsman’s office launched three investigations over the past year and another two investigations are currently underway, he said. However, Brunetta, who came into job after it had been vacant for several months, acknowledged that one investigation launched in 2009/10 was withdrawn by the complainant out of frustration with delays by the ombudsman’s office to process the files and delays related to a perceived conflict of interest.
Brunetta’s report has been referred to the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates.