Recommended solutions to avoid contracting aberrations

Dear Editor,
It was reported in December 2021 that President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, in response to the Auditor General’s Reports of 2019 and 2020, had issued a call to all contractors to “ensure that works assigned to them are not only done in a timely manner but that they are done in keeping with the required standards and within the parameters of cost.”
President Ali’s appeal to contractors is a moral one. It would not necessarily lead to a solution to the contracting nonfeasance plaguing Guyana for several decades. Contracting is a business. The main goal is to make as much money as possible. Variations such as loopholes in contracts, design and specification flaws, design changes and unforeseen construction issues provide contractors with opportunities to increase profitability. An experienced contractor who recognises one or more potential variations may submit a low bid to win a contract, and then use these variations to gain profitability. There is nothing illegal, or even unethical, about those variations.
The Guyana Government’s implementation of the PPP/C’s manifesto “Infrastructure Boom: Building for the Future”, is an ambitious undertaking that has to overcome many barriers to succeed. Infrastructural works such as bridges, roads, sea defences, gas-to-shore facilities, hydropower dams, etc. are intensive, extensive and expensive projects. Where large sums of public money are at stake, especially in such infrastructural works, human beings find creative ways to engage in corruption.
The Auditor General’s (AG’s) 2019 and 2020 reports contain a plethora of infrastructural project transgressions across Government Ministries that erode public trust and roll back progress. Current high-ranking Government officials have to spend enormous time and make additional funding requests to correct faulty and non-performing public infrastructure projects. These high-ranking officials have pressing time constraints to develop and implement policies, only to be diverted to rectify technical problems. It is an inefficient and costly way to transform a country.
As President Ali pleaded, “You are part of the mechanism that would allow or disallow this Government from achieving its commitment to the people of this country…We are one team, all of us in here, we are one team with an objective to achieve one vision.”
Most of the contracting problems cited in the AG’s reports were observed late in the project cycle, when value-engineering solutions became unachievable. In fact, some of the contracting problems probably originated at project conceptualisation and scope of work definition stages. To provide for the safety, health and welfare of Guyanese, and to obtain value for public infrastructural works, the Guyana Government must institute the necessary statutory and regulatory systems to combat malpractices in construction.
At a minimum, two statutory/regulatory agencies, departments or units need to be in place.
Firstly, if not yet created, a Registrar of Contractors agency to issue contractors’ licences, investigate and resolve complaints against licensed and unlicensed contractors, and to require a surety bond from contractors to serve as recovery funds to reimburse owners for poor workmanship or non-performance. Similar agencies can be created for professional engineers and engineering trade (eg plumbing) licences.
Secondly, a Building Safety Department to enact building codes and regulations, approve plans and specifications, inspect construction projects, and enforce the provisions of the building codes is needed.
A key reason for the contracting debauchery noted in the AG’s 2019 and 2020 reports is the poor or absence of construction management (CM). CM is a professional engineering service to monitor construction works to ensure quality, safety, compliance with plans and specifications, in-service performance, timely completion, and cost control. Unless the Government of Guyana hires qualified, experienced and incorruptible construction management personnel, the construction problems reported in the AG’s reports are likely to persist.
The AG’s reports show public infrastructural works across various ministries and agencies. To oversee these works for timely completion, quality construction according to design specifications and codes, consistency, minimisation of cost variations, and to stymie corruption, an umbrella Infrastructure Programme Management Unit is required.
Of course, the Government has to provide opportunities for education and training of the required technical staff and contractors’ licensure, enact and enforce tight enforcement policies.

Dr Muniram Budhu