update To ensure IT tenders are properly managed, governments must establish strict legal policies and build compliance procedures into the procurement process, an industry analyst urges, noting that the Singapore government has adopted global guidelines to ensure trade transparency.
The Auditor-General's Office last week highlighted several lapses in the internal controls over the management of public funds in several Singapore government bodies including the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Finance.
According to local reports, the oversights included a security lapse in the government's accounting system managed by the Accountant-General's Department, which allowed some users to modify programs and records in the system, as well as an unauthorized testing of an IT system within the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, resulting in two invoices being generated with incorrect values.
The Auditor-General's report said the lapses underscored the need for greater vigilance, especially in IT security as government agencies are now extensively computerized. At the same time, it noted the necessary systems and processes for governance are already in place across local government bodies.
In fact, Singapore ranked as the least corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a survey released in March by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. The country topped the annual poll with a score of 1.42, followed by Australia at 2.28 and Hong Kong at 2.67. The survey polled 2,147 executives working in 16 economies.
John Strand, CEO of Strand Consulting, said Singapore needs to be a role model for the rest of the region and demonstrate how a society with limited corruption can thrive. Corruption, he told ZDNet Asia, is one of the biggest problems in Asia.
Strict guidelines for tenders
In Singapore, the government adopts guidelines that are compliant with the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Government Procurement (WTO GPA), a legally binding plurilateral agreement that looks at the procurement of goods and services, including commodities and technology equipment, by government agencies.
Gerald Wang, Asia-Pacific senior market analyst for IDC's Government Insights, noted that to ensure IT tenders are not mismanaged, governments need to establish strict legal policies and integrate compliance standards and procedures into the procurement process. These should also encompass intelligence tools such as business analytics to ensure the required procurement processes are strictly adhered to, he explained in e-mail interview.
"Singapore's public sector procurement disciplines are tailored to be compliant with the internationally recognized WTO GPA in terms of trade transparency, openness and fair competition, and value for money concerns," Wang said.
Government-led IT projects are mostly procured through a centralized online e-business system, called GeBiz (Government Electronic Partner), which incorporates features typically found in private-sector business portals such as online shopping functions, alongside public-sector procurement requirements as stipulated in the WTO GPA, the IDC analyst noted.
Through the portal, suppliers can trade electronically with Singapore public sector agencies and government officials can also interact with their trading partners to manage procurement and revenue tender activities, he explained.
According to a spokesperson from the nation's ICT regulator, Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), the government's procures goods and services including ICT based on three key principles: transparency, open and fair competition, and value for money.
"The government would make known the objectives, criteria and procedures of each procurement exercise. Suppliers would be given equitable access opportunities to compete on a level playing field.
"In the award of contracts, vendors will be selected on the basis of 'value-for-money, fit-for-purpose'," the IDA spokesperson said.
Asked if specially tailored corporate governance is needed to ensure government IT tenders are properly managed, IDC's Wang said: "Ultimately, the public sector has its own set of unique business requirements. Thus, it definitely requires tailored corporate governance solutions in any IT project it pursues."
"This means it has to explore and gather distinctive expertise and knowledge toward building a specialized enterprise-grade IT solution that fits the unique environment it serves, thus, the eventual adoption of technologies lies fundamentally on the business operational requirements it seeks to address," he added.
According to Strand, Singapore remains one of the most advanced countries in Asia in terms of IT deployments.
Its investment in e-government services, for instance, exemplifies a country that recognizes IT as an important driver and understands how to use IT to help a society run more effectively, he said.
But while the government, through the IDA, has taken the lead in driving several nationwide initiatives--namely the next-generation national broadband network (NBN) and the Wireless@SG--Strand believes it is not always necessary for governments to invest in a country's telecommunications infrastructure. In a research note, the analyst noted that many governments around the globe utilize a great deal of resources and financing to support broadband projects failing to first examine if they can reach the same goals without using state subsidies or taxpayers' money.
Strand explained: "There are enough players and enough cashflow in the telecom sector to ensure that all people in Singapore can access the bandwidth they need. In practice, [governments] should sit down with the local telecommunications industry and create a national action plan in which they lay out what [either parties can do for the country]."
That said, he added that Singapore, in many respects, remains "a role model for many countries and especially those in Asia".
And when governments embark on large-scale IT projects that extend beyond a single budgetary cycle, IDC's Wang advised that they begin planning and submitting proposals for funding during the early stages of each budget planning process so they can secure the required funds to support these deployments.
The IDC analyst expects the Singapore public sector to continue to increase its ICT spending year-on-year, albeit through a wider dispersion of smaller value contracts. This, he said, indicates more business opportunities for IT vendors.
"Notably, Singapore's [next e-government masterplan] has yet to kick off and this will bring about pockets of substantial expansion in government ICT spending," he added. "Overall, the Singapore government is continually investing to better manage costs over the long term. Projects such as public services revamp, systems consolidation and other solutions that will allow agencies to reduce long-term software licensing costs, infrastructure investment costs, and more."
"Ultimately, e-government efforts are not all about the implementation of technology alone, but also the changing approach to the way the government delivers its traditional services," Wang said. "The key to successful e-government implementation lies in changing mindsets and taking calculated risks within the government. In addition, strong leadership directives and organization-wide commitment from all stakeholders involved remain crucial ingredients of successful e-government transformation."
As the national ICT regulator, IDA is guided by four key roles. First, it aims to drive the local ICT ecosystem, and formulate the necessary regulations and policies to ensure Singapore provides a "conducive, innovative and competitive" environment that is pro-business as well as pro-consumer, the IDA spokesperson said.
Second, it oversees the planning and management of ICT implementations for government agencies.
Third, he noted that the government agency looks at ways in which ICT can be used strategically in both the public and private sectors including education, transport and manufacturing, to drive social development and economic competitiveness.
Last, IDA also advocates the adoption of ICT within the local population and its efforts include providing assistance to low-income households and senior citizens, he added.