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January 12, 2015

Call for fairness in education sector procurements


January 12, 2015

THE lack of oversight and transparency in procurements by government agencies and subsequent missing component of accountability are undoubtedly big challenges, but manageable.
These aspects become more crucial vis-à-vis procurements for education sector, for instance keeping in view gigantic number of missing facilities especially in public schools across Punjab which are directly linked to quality component.
This seems more important when one has unfortunate examples of even non-utilisation of budgetary allocations and lapse of the same by those at the helm as witnessed on various occasions in the past, and with no accountability in the end. This obviously multiplies the requirements and magnifies the problems.
In this backdrop, the latest report ‘Education Sector Procurements in Punjab: A Horizontal Accountability Perspective’ is worth-pondering. With the core objective ‘to promote a debate on the need for strengthened internal accountability mechanisms in education sector procurements in Punjab’ the report is an effort to bridge the gap in understanding about the role of different government departments in the education sector procurement.
The study discusses institutional roles and accountability mechanisms in three types of procurements in education sector of the province, including textbooks, civil works, and purchases and procurement by School Councils.
According to senior research fellow Ahmad Ali, the reason for choosing these topics was that ‘they constituted the bulk of non-salary and development expenditure’ and because procurement of these works had important implications on quality of learning and school safety. The report highlights key issues and challenges vis-à-vis procurements in all these three areas and also suggests measures to streamline the same and put in place a strict monitoring and accountability mechanism. For example, with regard to provision of textbooks, for free distribution among

students of public schools, the report rightly highlighted issues such as ‘duplication of mandate and institutional conflicts’ in the presence of Punjab Textbook Board (PTB) and Punjab Curriculum Authority (PCA), now both merged.
It also underscores the need of oversight and transparency in procurement and use of printing paper with the aim to promote competition and cut down the overall cost as the report notices that handing over paper procurement to the publishers by the Punjab government has ‘apparently’ favoured big printing or publishing houses. It also indentifies weak oversight role of the province’s School Education Department and less visible role of audit and public accounts committee.
The main key issues and challenges vis-à-vis procurement of civil works at public schools as highlighted in the study are informal coalitions, collusions and rent-seeking norms in the contracting process.
Based on interviews with a number of retired officials of Communications and Works Department (CWD), the I-SAPS’ report claims that ‘the XEN who is the Drawing and Disbursing Officer (DDC) of projects in his jurisdiction ensures that the customary 9-12 percent is received from the contractors on all the running bills.’ It also says according to a CWD employee ‘4 percent out of this money goes to the XEN himself, 2 percent goes to the Sub-Divisional Officer, 1 percent to Overseer, 1 percent to the accounting and clerical staff and the last 1 percent is kept for entertainment and stationery.’
Apart from this, the report also highlights that lack of coordination between the School Education Department & CWD poses a constant challenge in ensuring quality of civil works at schools.
Similarly for the procurements through School Councils (SCs), the report also identifies issues and challenges such as capacity of the SCs, their preparedness and above all their ability to manage records. It suggests an open policy for the community to view the financial documents on demand as well as to put such data on the Schools Department’s official website for transparency purposes.
The report strongly recommends horizontal accountability-mutual scrutiny by the state institutions internally-for education sector procurement ‘because its impact is embedded within government and is more likely to be sustainable than vertical accountability which is about non-state actors such as non-governmental organisations, citizen groups, media, and donors questioning the state agencies and government on their performance.’

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