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Government agency wants to bypass hiring policies

Mar 29 2012

The government agency that handles finances for children and the mentally impaired wants to award more than $750,000 in contracts without public competition, for jobs such as computer programming and report writing.

The Public Guardian and Trustee of B.C., charged with legal affairs and finances for children and mentally incapable adults, posted a notice recently that it intends to bypass normal B.C. government hiring policies that require it to solicit applications from the public.

Instead, the office has said it will fill seven contracts, worth a total of $754,000, by directly awarding them to companies of its choosing.

Those contracts include a 12-month data report writer position worth $99,000, a $176,000 project manager, a $110,000 programmer analyst and a $150,000 technical architect.

Catherine Romanko, B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee, said her office is complying with the government's hiring policy because it has decided to hire off its own list of 14 "pre-qualified" information technology companies based in the Lower Mainland.

"We talk directly to the IT community in the Lower Mainland and, from them, we develop a suppliers list," she said.

The B.C. government's procurement policy says most contracts worth more than $75,000 should be open to public bidders, and can be directly awarded only in time-sensitive cases or where there is a single company able to handle the work.

Agencies are allowed to select companies from a pre-qualified list, but need to disclose for how long they are using such a list and make sure it's updated with fresh companies, according to government policy.

Romanko said her office has been using a pre-qualified list since at least April 2007.

Much of the work relates to the office's old computer system, which it uses to manage $860 million in private trust money, said Romanko.

"There's only so many people who are available to provide these services," she said. "We think we're reaching those who are interested."

Romanko said her office has been unsuccessfully asking government for money to get a new computer system for years, because the current one is inadequate.

Since 2007, the Public Guardian and Trustee of B.C. has filled 75 of 85 contracts without public competition, according to a list of closed contracts on the government's B.C. Bid website.

Romanko disputed those figures, saying only 38 of the contracts bypassed the public process. The rest were "awarded on a competitive basis," including selecting companies off the office's pre-qualified list, which Romanko argued is a form of competitive bid.

The government is obliged to put its contracts out for public bids, often because of various interprovincial, federal and international trade agreements, said Lynne Siemens, a University of Victoria professor who researches government and public administration.

"Government also posts these things to make sure they're getting not necessarily always the cheapest price, because sometimes it's more than the dollar amount, but the best value for money," she said.

Transparency of public funds through public contracts is also key, said UVic political science professor Michael Prince.

"We live in a world of politics in public administration where perception is important, and not only doing the right thing but being seen to do the right thing," he said.

"I think if your consistent pattern is more times than not, you're not going to competitive bids, it raises the concern: Is there favouritism or is the taxpayer getting best value for their dollar or not?"

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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