Considering how expensive and drawn-out tender processes can be to solve problems that might be very immediate, it's little wonder that Victoria Police's IT department tried to work the tender exemptions system.
After all, it isn't the only agency asking for exemptions so it doesn't have to go to tender.
In the 2008/2009 year there were 729 procurement process approvals (not all IT) which went through the Victorian Government Procurement Board. Of those, only 265 were tenders — or only around 36 per cent. The board approved 51 exemptions from tendering, and 84 exemptions from tendering and taking three quotes: together around 19 per cent. The remaining approvals were made up by variations where agencies needed to change the amount, duration or service levels of their contract.
The previous year's statistics didn't look any better. 2007/2008 saw 37 per cent of one-off purchases go to tender, 24 per cent exempt from tendering (or tendering and taking three quotes) and 39 per cent become variations on older contracts.
With just around 20 per cent of the money for one-off purchases passing through the board not reaching tender, it seems Victoria Police was just going with the flow by taking its fair share of non-process.
The rules for the Victorian Procurement Board say that in order to get an exemption there needs to be: a matter of "extreme urgency" including matters of public health, security or safety; a case where goods need to be compatible with existing information technology platforms; or no reasonable or alternative or substitute to buy.
This could cover quite a few tenders. And does, as the statistics show. Despite CIOs vehemently telling me how amazed they are that such behaviour could go on, I'm sure that lots of other departments are getting away with wholesale contract variations and buying products or services without a tender on spurious grounds. The difference is that they cover their tracks with paper. They have reasons.
The problem with Victoria Police was that its documentation didn't allow its actions to stand up under scrutiny. And the more people scratched at the surface the more it stank. The wining and dining tactics of the vendors were certainly laid out in such bright light it hurt.
But it took multiple reviews for the ugly truth to come out. Something not likely to happen often. Something the government can't afford to have happen often, because if everyone obeyed the tendering rules 100 per cent, the overheads would probably take such a hike that finance staff would be screaming.
It's a case of pragmatism versus idealism, a daily battle where no one can win.