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Procurement Probity – Chumps or Champions?

Check out this alarming feedback from government procurement managers about their probity auditors and/ or advisors…

“ No reference to – or understanding of the need for – a Procurement Plan.”
“No mention of scoring priorities or methods in a tender evaluator briefing”
“Conflict of Interest identification and management ignored potential or perceived Conflicts”
“They could not explain what their own probity assessment was benchmarked to”
“… was completely unfamiliar with spreadsheet checking (let alone understanding of Price Quality Method).”

As taxpayers and ratepayers, we’re rightly concerned that the funds we provide to our government are spent wisely and fairly. So it’s the Probity Advisors and Auditors who we trust to give confidence that the procurement processes that underpin how our money is spent are fair, transparent, effective, and free from hidden agendas or personal bias.

Scratch the surface, however, and we find there are huge variations in the level of service and competence provided.

There are dozens of people who describe themselves as Probity Advisors or Probity Auditors. While many Procurement Assurance professionals are clearly knowledgeable, qualified and well equipped for their important responsibilities, others seem unaware of the basic expectations that stakeholders (that’s you and me, among many others!) have of their roles.

So, what are those expectations?

Audit New Zealand, MBIE NZ Government Procurement and Property and the Public Service Commission all have valuable information and guidelines for probity to be clearly achieved in all aspects of public sector procurement. In essence, these guidelines emphasise that public organisations need to carry out their procurement in a transparent, accountable, impartial, and equitable way.

Probity is a far-reaching concept, but its principles are fundamental. They include:

  1. Accountability
  2. Openness
  3. Value for money
  4. Lawfulness
  5. Fairness
  6. Integrity

These principles are necessarily broad, and open to a wide range of interpretations in real-life situations. It takes deep understanding of procurement practice, together with confident leadership, to embed them into everyday procurement practices.

Recognising situations that where procurement probity is being tested is not easy. And it takes courage and conviction to work effectively with procurement staff and their managers, to get their processes back on track.

Internal probity advisors and/ or auditors are typically involved in reviewing procurement processes where probity risks are not high.

In procurements that are large-scale, complex, risky or have attracted public attention, independent external probity advisors and/ or auditors should be engaged. This means the advice received is independent, and should be firmly based on extensive experience in procurement ethics and legislative requirements, as well as case law and experience of other public sector organisations in relation to probity issues.

Put simply, the overall responsibilities of Procurement /Probity Auditors, Assurance and Advisors are to give confidence that the procurement processes followed by the Tender Evaluation Teams:

  1. were fair, transparent, robust, consistent, and impartial, demonstrating robust ethical principles;
  2. effectively identified conflicts of interest and required the Tender Evaluation Team (TET), to act ethically in all aspects of their evaluation;
  3. accurately reflected the evaluation processes described in the RFP and associated documents; and
  4. comply with applicable legislation and best practice procurement standards.

What’s the difference between a Probity Auditor and a Probity Advisor?

Your Probity Auditor essentially has a ‘tick-box’ role, often undertaken at the end of a procurement process via a review. This timing means that it’s a far less involved, and less effective role than a Probity Advisor, who should provide active guidance through the procurement process.

Your Probity Auditor will be in a tight spot if your RFP documents or your evaluation process are inconsistent with something you’ve committed to, in your Procurement Plan. Or if someone on your team forgets to mention a personal or historical connection with a tenderer, and this is only discovered later. It happens frighteningly often; and has led to serious consequences for some of our most senior politicians. Nobody is immune!

Your Probity Advisor should have a tight lens on all of those precedents that can end up causing enormous embarrassment, career limitations or (worst case) financial penalties. They should be able to steer you and your team through the probity landmines to a clear, well substantiated decision that’s run on the rails of current best practice in procurement.

“Procurement Assurance” is a title favoured by one of new Zealand’s most celebrated Procurement Auditors and Advisors. Sensibly, it encompasses Advisory and Auditing roles. This comprehensive role has the potential to not only give the confidence needed in current procurement processes, but build future knowledge and capability in the procurement teams it serves.

What knowledge and experience should a Probity Advisor or Auditor have?

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no recognised qualification for Probity Auditors in New Zealand – yet! So we asked some of New Zealand’s most experienced Probity professionals what credentials they think are most important to the role.

First and foremost, deep experience and understanding of procurement practice in New Zealand is a must. This means walking the walk, not just talking the talk! Anyone who has not personally evaluated tenders, put procurement plans and RFT documents together, developed scoring systems and moderated scoring, will struggle to spot those small probity cracks that can turn into major challenges.

It’s the chance comments, like “I know Smiths did a great job for another division, why aren’t we just appointing them?” that get procurement teams (and their managers) in trouble.

The Probity Advisor you should engage will sniff out prejudice, inconsistency or outdated practices a mile off. They’ll already have reviewed your Procurement Strategy and/ or Plan – or challenged you if you don’t have one. Completely familiar with Government Procurement Rule 14 and the case law around Direct Appointments, they’ll also check your own organisation’s policies. They may interrogate your staffer and uncover a conflict of interest that must – without doubt – be tightly managed.

They’ll need up-to-the-minute knowledge of the nuts and bolts within the scoring mechanisms you’ve committed to. No spreadsheet error will get past them – nor will any arbitrary or opinion-based judgment of non-conformance pass muster. An eagle eye for detail, coupled with strong numerical skills and extensive experience in a range of tender evaluation models, are all critical.

It’s important that your prospective Probity Auditor has procurement and/ or legal qualifications, as well as auditing experience. But those tickets are no guarantee of their up-to-date knowledge of procurement practice, recent case law, and the wide range of activities that are expected in the role. Your check of their credentials should go well beyond their formal qualifications or job titles.

What should your Probity Auditor do (and how)?

A Probity Auditor is not the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Even small breaches of fair process requirements can lead to big problems later, which a diligent Probity Auditor cannot ignore. If you’re serious about them doing a ‘proper’ job, they need early involvement. And they won’t just do a desktop review or silently fill in forms in the corner at your last moderation meeting. They’ll be there right from the start to keep you and your team on the straight and narrow throughout the process.

Your Procurement Assurer should have time to robustly review your Procurement Strategy and Plan, and your RFP documents, before they are finalized. They should be familiar with your organisation’s applicable Policies and Government Procurement Rules; and they should apply that knowledge in their assessments.

Knowing it’s likely that some of your team are not experts in best practice procurement, your Procurement Assurers should be part of your briefing. They’ll see first-hand how you discuss and agree your scoring system, cover confidentiality protocols and undertake regular reviews of actual, as well as any emerging potential or perceived Conflicts of Interest.

Procurement Assurance – whether through Auditors, Advisors, or both – is a tough gig. It demands up-to-the-minute procurement knowledge and practical experience; a focus on ethics and integrity; and the confidence to speak out to avoid small cracks turning into landslides.

Choose carefully – your future in procurement and/or management may depend on them!

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