Three New South Wales (NSW) government agencies – Transport NSW, the Education Department and NSW Health – have been criticised over their use of external procurement probity practitioners.
An audit, conducted by the Audit Office of NSW, found instances where the agencies had failed to comply with rules when engaging probity practitioners and they did not have effective processes to assure value for money.
The NSW Procurement Board states agencies should routinely take probity considerations into account during the procurement process.
It also sets out requirements for government agencies to use and engage probity advisors and auditors to ensure decisions are made with integrity, fairness and accountability, while providing value for money. Probity practitioners are used to verify processes are consistent with government legislation, guidelines and best practice principles.
The board says external probity practitioners should be used “as the exception rather than the rule”, but the audit found instances where agencies had not evaluated whether value for money was achieved.
“Agencies should not use probity practitioners as 'an insurance policy' to avoid accountability for decisions or as a substitute for good management practices,” the auditors said.
The board specifies agencies should not engage the same procurement probity practitioner on an ongoing basis, so the relationship remains “robustly independent”, but the audit found agencies relying on a "limited number" of practitioners.
Auditors found the agencies “did not always ensure the practitioner was sufficiently independent or manage probity practitioners' independence and conflict of interest issues transparently”.
The top 40 government agencies in NSW were also surveyed by the auditors to understand the wider use of probity practitioners across the public sector.
Of the bodies surveyed, 25 did not provide probity training and 39 did not report on their use of probity practitioners. It also found agencies are predominantly engaging the same three probity service suppliers.
The auditors said the procurement board “does not effectively monitor agencies' compliance”, as it has not asked any agency to report on its use of probity practitioners since 2013.
According to NSW Infrastructure Strategy 2018-38, NSW has more infrastructure projects underway than any other state territory in Australia.
“The scale of the spend on procuring and constructing new public transport networks, roads, schools and hospitals, the complexity of these projects and public scrutiny of aspects of their delivery has increased the focus on probity in the public sector,” the audit said.
In its recommendations, the auditors said the three non-compliant agencies should revise their probity policies, processes and systems.
It also suggested the procurement board should support agencies “by developing and implementing criteria that ensure prequalified practitioners have the required capability and experience to deliver quality outcomes”.
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