Public procurement of indigenous software | Dialogue
he Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police initiated a project in November 2019 to digitise the traffic ticket/ challan mechanism, procuring software services from a local vendor. A news report published on August 8 says up to 13 million traffic challans for Rs 5 billion have since been digitally generated through the newly introduced system.
The KP is the only province in Pakistan so far to have been able to implement this significant cultural change initiative. The leadership of KP Police deserves credit and appreciation for this. Other provinces, including the Punjab, have been unable to implement such a system even in one district.
The biggest threat to the sustainability of such transformational reform initiatives is the public procurement rules. These rules were made keeping in view the procurement of goods and services only. However, procurement of software systems is treated no differently under these rules. Software systems attain good quality over time and require the availability of the same developer or company for maintenance, year after year.
Working on an existing source code is one of the biggest challenges that even the most popular open source software face. The only answer to this challenge is the availability of a dedicated Software Quality Governance Team at the organisational level.
In my article: 8 Challenges in the Digital Journey, published on September 6, 2020, I wrote:
The biggest threat to the sustainability of such transformational reform initiatives is the public procurement rules. These rules were made keeping in view the procurement of goods and services only. Procurement of software systems is not treated differently by these rules. Software systems attain good quality over time and require the availability of the same developer or company for their maintenance, year after year.
“Ideally, the software engineer who developed it in the first place should be traced and given the contract. Otherwise, the company that was given the initial development contract should be engaged for maintenance and support as well. For this, perpetual budgetary expenses would have to be allocated. Otherwise, continuously irritating buggy software is what the departmental staff will have to live with.”
When I was a member of the Task Force on Austerity and Restructuring Government, I was informed that the government of Pakistan spends $5 million in annual support charges to SAP for the PIFRA project (for payroll disbursement). I proposed that we should have this system developed indigenously so that we don’t pay dollars to foreign companies directly/ indirectly. Unfortunately, my proposal was dismissed. I was disappointed, but the initiative shown by the KP Police in getting the e-challan system developed indigenously has given me hope. If all entities in the federal, provincial and local governments partner up with local software industry in a long-term relationship and shared intellectual property, this will not only improve the quality of service available to citizens at lower costs but also enable these companies to create new jobs and bring in the much-needed foreign exchange for Pakistan from the export of software and allied services.
Success stories like the KP e-challan are worth highlighting, especially given the digital literacy levels and limited digital infrastructure in the KP. The question is that given the public procurement rules, what will happen when the contract of the current vendor expires? Will they go for the contract renewal, if there is such a provision in the initial contract, or re-tender? If the new company selected based on the lowest bid messes up or cannot deliver the project will become scandalized and politically damaging.
The writer is a Humphrey fellow, a public sector digital transformation expert and a World Bank consultant.
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