We certainly live in very interesting and disrupted times with COVID-19. NSW Government agencies will need to strictly comply with all related requirements established by NSW Health, including any restrictions on indoor meetings and gatherings. This will need to be balanced with maintaining employment and minimising unnecessary disruption.
Government procurement is an activity which by its nature is typically enacted via a range of face-to-face interactions. This is often the most effective means of communication between internal and external stakeholders, including proponents. Technology is, however, available which enables you to communicate effectively. If implemented properly, procurement objectives may still be achieved and risks appropriately managed.
As probity advisors, Procure Group is tasked with advising on and monitoring a procurement process to confirm that it has been run in a fair and equitable manner and with due regard to probity. As such, when moving to more remote and digital forms of communication, an agency should have regard to the following probity considerations.
Access to information:
A fundamental principle of probity is ensuring that each proponent has access to the same level of information. In the current environment, technology can be an enabler of communication. It is, however, important that:
- clear instructions are provided to proponents regarding how to participate in the communication
- proponents are appropriately enabled to participate
- equal opportunity to participate is afforded to all proponents.
Based on our experience we have noted that the clarity of communication in some meetings held by teleconference or video link can be poor. This can be the result of technical glitches, poor internet connection, or placement of microphones. Where poor communication results, it is important that the agency takes the time to ensure that there is a clear understanding of all material matters. This may require a follow-up telephone call or email to obtain a confirmation from the affected party. Where communication has not been clear an additional interaction may be required.
Meetings held by teleconference or video conference:
Industry briefings and other proponent interactions such as one-on-one meetings, interactive sessions, or clarification meetings, may be held by teleconference or video conference. When holding such sessions, care must be taken to ensure the following:
- that all interested parties have clear instructions regarding how to participate in the session – the instructions should suggest that participants sign-in to the session 5 – 10 minutes prior to the session to avoid missing the start
- guidelines for participation (including restrictions on electronic recording) and how to access the communication platform should be sent to all participants in advance to enable participants to be well prepared
- the technology used should be readily available and easily used so as not to restrict participation
- the cost of the platform used should be nil or immaterial so as not to restrict participation
- The agency should be able to know who is participating in the session and maintain a record of participation.
Copies of information material or PowerPoint slides relevant to a tender briefing or other proponent meeting can be provided by the agency in advance of / at the time of the briefing or meeting to assist in understanding context while the verbal briefing takes place. Appropriate caveats should be included regarding the need to maintain confidentiality, and if held during the bid phase of a tender, non-reliance on information..
Industry briefings may be electronically recorded by the agency and provided to proponents if it is determined that this will be helpful for the process and proponents. All attendees at the briefing should be notified if recording is taking place. Recording industry briefings and making these available to the market could avoid the need for mandatory attendance as is sometimes required.
Proponent recording of meetings:
As is currently the case, one-on-one meetings with proponents should not be electronically recorded by proponents without the express permission of the agency and without the knowledge of all those in attendance. It should be acknowledged by all participants (including the agency) and included in the written record of the meeting that meetings are not being electronically recorded.