The Public Procurement Commission recently began a round of engagements with stakeholders in the construction industry outlining draft regulations that, if implemented, would see contractors in the industry being suspended or debarred if found guilty of doing shoddy work on Government contracts. Chairperson of the PPC, Carol Corbin, continued to show optimism that this long outstanding development can achieve parliamentary approval before the end of the year.
The state of public works in the construction industry has always begged for an environment where mechanisms for monitoring and control, enforcing compliance and penalising non-compliance are the norm, and are applied across the board with an even hand. For many years it has been an open secret that government construction projects are subject to the overarching environment of corruption and lack of definitive regulatory guidelines and practices. Indeed, even when the semblance of a regulatory arm exists within a project, with the responsibility for monitoring and control, there still seems to be no sanction forthcoming on this regulatory arm when it becomes clear that they must have badly fumbled and dropped the ball, for the contractor to fail the project, sometimes quite miserably.
That the PPC is up and running and in the process of taking draft regulations to parliament, is a good development, as late in coming as it might be. However, to successfully address the decline of standards in the construction industry as a whole, including those pertaining to public procurement works, requires the full engagement of other regulatory agencies, standards-based bodies. With all hands on deck, Guyana just might be able to arrest the decline in the construction industry and remove the laissez-faire approach adopted over the years by those who should be in control.
For instance, to speak about the suspension and debarment of contractors for recurring poor work, presupposes that the monitors and regulators are, themselves, performing their jobs creditably, so as not to become complicit in the failure of projects and provide erring contractors with enough wiggle room to escape censure from the PPC. There have been many cases in the past where blame for the failure of projects has been bounced back and forth among design engineers, supervisors and the contractors themselves. It might help if there were an impartial group of experts whose opinions on the cause of any failure in a project would be the final word and guide the penalty phase of dealing with partial or complete project failures. The arbitration process is usually much more suited to the court system for resolving disputes in the construction industry, and this is just another cog in the machine that the PPC would have interfaced with in dealing particularly with large local contractors and overseas contracting firms.
It has been proven time and again in Guyana that simply having a well written law or regulations governing a specific matter does not necessarily make for the resolution of the issue. Laws and regulations are a necessary first step in the approach to standardisation and providing a benchmark for evaluation and a basis for corrective action, including applying penalties. However, laws and regulations must be executed within a complex system of human and physical resources that if flawed, makes for a faulty implementation of the laws and regulations, breeding corruption and mismanagement.
As much as the PPC is concerned with public construction works in this instance, the unregulated state of the construction industry also affects private (business) construction and individual domestic construction efforts as well. While one might argue that private business have the means to ensure that contractors work to accepted standards, or to pursue legal remedies when they don’t, there are private businesses which themselves are the source of the contractor’s departure from acceptable building standards. Individual domestic builders are usually at the mercy of unscrupulous and/or unskilled contractors as well as suppliers of lumber and concrete blocks and there is many a sad tale to be heard especially from first time home builders who now carry significant mortgages but did not get value for their hard earned and acquired money.
It is hoped that those in authority are looking at the big picture issue regarding the state of the construction industry in Guyana. Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson, lamented nearly one year ago in December 2017 that, “We are still facing the fact that we have too few capable contractors in the system…” A few months before that, in August, CEO of the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA), Lelon Saul called for regulations to govern contractors, after he was quizzed on the collapse of a newly constructed home of Althea Thegg, noting, “We at the CH&PA view the case you are referring to as a private agreement with the contractor and home owner,” adding “It is time for us in Guyana to have proper regulations so we can govern our building contractors.”
But many hold the view that Guyana already has many laws and regulations under which many of the corrupt practices in the construction industry can be dealt with. Many will argue that what is lacking is the resolve to punish defaulters and to make the regulators and inspectors themselves answerable when they fail to carry out their duties without fear or favour.
Recently the Auditor General found that a contractor received $45M or 72% of a contract while only carrying out works valued $15M or 24% of the contract. A contractor was paid $80M out of a $97M contract for the construction of the base for the Palmyra Indian Monument, only for the entire structure to dramatically collapse due to the obviously substandard work done.
There are too many cases of failed projects both at the public level and also at the business and individual levels for us to not see this as a problem needing a comprehensive solution. It is necessary too for a comprehensive overhaul of the standards, monitoring, compliance and enforcement environment in the entire construction industry. We hope the PPC can expedite what must be seen as merely a first step.