Singapore is one of the highest users of e-government services, with many small and midsize businesses (SMBs) relying on portals such as online tender site GeBIZ to clinch sales contracts. Among the reasons for its popularity are the transparency and ease of use of the service, two local SMBs note, adding the recent controversy over a tender by the National Parks Board (NParks) to acquire 26 foldable bicycles for S$2,600 (US$2,069.20) each does not detract from the positives.
According to an Accenture survey in May, more than half of Singapore citizens found it easy to interact with their government online and over 70 percent of respondents used the Internet to submit and track government forms and payments. They were also more likely than respondents from Australia, France, Germany, United States, India, and United Kingdom, to use digital channels to conduct routine government business, it stated.
However, there were suspicions raised earlier this month that e-government sites such as online tender portal GeBIZ could be 'gamed' by public sector officials for their personal agendas. People turned to online forums to question some of NParks' decision with regard to its procurement process. For instance, its decision to open its invitation-to-quote (ITQ) for the bicycles clashed with a weekend, effectively cutting it to three working days.
One forum user, "Singaporean1st", queried: "The quotation period, as set by the National Parks' quotation officer, is only 5 days. So why such a rush?? In fact, Jan. 28 and Jan. 29 is Saturday and Sunday. Thus, it leaves very little room for potential bidders to be aware of this tender.
"So, my question is, does it seem like the NParks quotation officer is trying to rap [sic] it up AS SOON AS POSSIBLE and call it a day within 3 working days?"
Minister for National Development (MND) Khaw Boon Wan weighed in on the debate, saying that after conversations with NParks, he had accepted the agency's explanation for the procurement. He did note that at the close of the ITQ, only one vendor responded to the bid and NParks could have gotten a better deal if there was greater participation in the ITQ.
"I have asked MND staff to discuss this case with our agencies, to see if there are lessons which we can draw from this case. In all purchases we should always satisfy the criteria of 'value for money' when public funds are involved," the minister wrote in his blog post on Jul. 4.
Sufficient protocol in place
When contacted, Singapore's Ministry of Finance told ZDNet Asia that government agencies are required to abide by the principles of fairness, open competition, and transparency as part of the country's obligations under the World Trade Organization-Agreement on Government Procurement (WTO-GPA) and other free trade agreements. Procurement procedures include putting an open ITQ process for purchases up to S$70,000 (US$55,529) via GeBIZ so that all suppliers can participate, the spokesperson elaborated.
He added the minimum ITQ opening period of four working days is allowed, particularly for commercial, off-the-shelf products. Government agencies are allowed to extend the opening period before the ITQ expires but they will do so not knowing how many bids have been submitted, to "ensure fairness and impartiality", he said.
"The contract is awarded to the bid received that has the best value for money, where both price and non-price considerations like quality and reliability are taken into account when making the decision," the spokesperson stated.
Onus on companies to know system well
Two local SMBs shared with ZDNet Asia their experiences using the online tender site, and explained why they think GeBIZ offers several benefits.
One local business owner, who requested to remain anonymous, said GeBIZ is a good platform to know what kinds of jobs and work is available on the market. It is an easy-to-use portal that allows companies to search for jobs specific to its business and, once an ITQ has been awarded, they can view the successful bid and find out the ongoing market rate, thus promoting transparency and competition, he explained.
He added the e-government service is a "fair" platform because it gives individuals and companies a measure of where they stand in the marketplace. Companies registered as members with the GeBIZ platform can be electronically notified when a tender is issued that triggers preset keywords the businesses have chosen.
Another business manager, Khim, said the portal is very useful for finding new work and generating sales leads. "It works because it consolidates everything on one site. It's also good in that it allows me to sort and sieve our work that's relevant to my company," he said.
"And because it is certified by the government, [customers know] the organizations listed on the site have their credentials assured," Khim added.
However, not every SMB or business owner is familiar with GeBIZ and its bidding process, particularly bidding time period, the anonymous business owner noted. This varies due to reasons such as the public sector agency urgently needing the service or product, or the number of bids received.
For example, not every bid gets a response so some agencies would contact the vendor they want first before putting the ITQ up on GeBIZ. This way, they know that even if they open up the bid to up to three weeks, they would at least get a company tender and procure the needed service, he elaborated
"It's a case of being familiar with how the system works. The bids have a contact person for each agency, so if one is keen on the job, you can contact that agency directly for more details on the tender," he said. With their contact details in the agencies' vendor database, companies stand a chance to clinch future deals even if the current tender is unsuccessful, he added.