Following the ruling party’s defeat at the Local Government Elections, which is linked to the failure in putting a stop to bribery and corruption within the Government, it has now come to light that the Education Ministry Officials have violated a tender procedure.
Top Education Ministry officials are alleged to have violated procurement guidelines to procure computer tabs for Advanced Level students and teachers in favour of a particular bidder. Further revelations show how pressure had been mounted on the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) to recommend this particular bidder who has failed to comply with the tender specifications.
It is alleged that the TEC, appointed to procure tabs for A/L students and teachers, had come under severe pressure from higher rankers at the Ministry of Education. This pressure was applied on the committee to force it to recommend a brand that doesn’t have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certification, which guarantees the health safety of the users- the A/L students in the country.
There are three levels of FCC standardization. They are verification, conformity and certification. The FCC verification and conformity are issued to devices that do not intentionally transmit radio frequency (RF) radiation. The verification and conformity documents are retained by the manufacturer and describe how the device confirms to the technical standards. The FCC certification is required for all devices that include wireless transmitters/ receivers. It’s reported that prolonged exposure to RF has an impact on the nervous system and brain activity of humans effecting memory, learning and male fertility. Although these tablet devices are to given to school children, the Education Ministry’s proposal to award the tender to the bidder, whose devices do not have all required internationally accepted safety standards for human health in order to protect the health and well-being of the A/L students, has raised concern among officials at the Ministry of Education.
Although the TEC had submitted their report to the Standing Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee (SCAPC) recommending one bidder that had complied all procurement specification required to be awarded the tender, Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers based on a cabinet decision on December 19, 2017, had directed Secretary Education Ministry to re-evaluate four bidders that had been rejected by the TEC but recommended by the Procurement Appeal Board (PAB).
The TEC members had no other option, but to act on the Cabinet of Minister’s directives to choose a bidder out of four that was rejected by them earlier
Following this directive, six out of the nine member of the TEC on January 3, 2018, gave their recommendations to award the tender to Abans PLC to supply Lenovo brand computer tabs. However by a letter dated January 12, 2018, two of them -Chief Accountant Education Ministry, J.K.N.S. Perera and Assistant Director of Education W.A.S.W. Wijesuriya had written to the Chairman Standing Cabinet Appoint Procurement Committee (SCAPC) stating that they should withdraw consent they gave on January 3, 2013.
In the letter, Perera and Wijesuriya further state that although they evaluated and ranked only four bids recommended by the PAB and approved by the Cabinet of Ministers (17/ 2913/ 742/ 049/TBR), based on the durability and health safety standards of the devices, after re-considering the evaluation process, they had decided to withdraw the consent given as the selected device does not meet internationally accepted safety standards of human health.
Meanwhile two more members of the TEC- Director Finance Ministry Tharanga Liyanage and Assistant Director Education W.S.S. Dissanayake in another letter dated January 11, 2018 had stated how irregular it is to evaluate and rank only four bidders that have not complied tender specifications.
They further state that the way these four bidders have been chosen for final consideration is questionable as the earlier TEC report has given every detail as to why they have been rejected.
In the meantime it is learned as to how the cabinet of ministers had disregarded the observations made by the Minister of Finance and Mass Media in his Cabinet Memorandum dated December 18, 2017 with regard to the questionable procurement.
Minister of Finance and Mass Media in his cabinet memorandum states that the Ministry of Education should cancel the procurement and call for fresh tenders.
The observations made by the Finance Minister states the following: ‘Considering the following aspects, it is appropriate for the Ministry of Education to cancel this procurement and call for fresh tenders.
‘(i) The Standing Cabinet Appoint Procurement Committee (SCAPC) has recommended M/s metropolitan Computers (Pvt) Ltd being the lowest evaluated substantially responsive bidder whereas the Procurement Appeal Board (PAB) has recommended Abans PLC as the lowest bidder.
(ii) The TEC has rejected the bids of the Abans PLC as the device submitted by them has critical departures from the technical specifications as against the requirements in the bidding document (major deviation).
(iii) Seven bidders out of ten had submitted appeals against the SCAPC recommendation to award the contract.
(iv) During the bid evaluation period the composition of the TEC had been reconstituted several times.
‘Therefore, I propose that the Ministry of Education should initiate a new procurement process in this regard with a comprehensive bidding document covering all aspects highlighted, to avoid various ambiguities reported in the present tender which is proposed to be cancelled’.
Subsequent to Finance Minister’s observations, Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers, S. Abeysinghe by letter December 22, 2017 to Secretary Ministry of Education Sunil Hettiarachchi had instructed the latter to grant approval to take action as per the recommendation indicated under sub-paragraph 3.2 of the Education Ministry Cabinet Memorandum and to take action as per the decision above (sub-paragraph 3.2) and submit the outcome to the Cabinet, through the Minister for consideration. The letter further states that the cabinet of ministers has decided to treat this decision as confirmed and to convey the cabinet decision to the relevant authorities for necessary action accordingly.
(Sub-paragraph 3.2 of the Education Ministry Cabinet Memorandum refers as thus, ‘As recommended by the PAB, to refer the four bidders to the TEC along with the selected bidder and to consider the standards of their devices once again’).
However, to the dismay of the Education Ministry officers, instead of evaluating the initially selected bidder- Metropolitan Computers together with the other four bidders that were earlier rejected, the TEC on January 3, 2018 re-evaluated only Abans PLC (Haier brand), EW Information Systems Ltd (EWIS brand), Abans PLC (Lenovo brand) and Softlogic Retail Pvt Ltd (MaxMo brand) but not Metropolitan Computers.
“The TEC members had no other option, but to act on the Cabinet of Minister’s directives to choose a bidder out of four that was rejected by them earlier,” Education Ministry sources said on condition of anonymity.
According to the sources, attempts taken by the Education Ministry higher officials to influence the TEC to select one of their ‘favoured’ bidders from the inception had failed. This has led the Secretary Education Ministry to make a request to the Department of Public Finance to appoint new members to the TEC which had been turned down.
Failing to influence the TEC members, by letter dated July 12, 2017, Secretary Education Ministry (Ref:ED/07/101/10/PRO/CAPC/2017) had made a request to the Department of Public Finance to appoint new members to the TEC. However turning down the request, by letter dated July 24, 2017, Director General Department of Public Finance P. Algama had written to Secretary Ministry of Education that the request made by him to replace the TEC with new members shall bring negative impact on the credibility and transparency of the Government procurement procedure and instead he could appoint more members to the committee.
The letter further states, ‘For the procurement of free tabs for AL teachers and students, I have already appointed seven members to the TEC by letter dated March 3, 2017, and without giving any reasons you have made a request to null and void the appointed TEC.
‘The TEC had already followed the procurement guidelines and had called for tenders. Hence to remove the members of the TEC at this juncture, shall bring negative impact on the credibility and transparency of the Government procurement procedure. If you need to strengthen the TEC, could consider to appoint more members to the committee’.
Following this directive, six out of the nine member of the TEC on January 3, 2018, gave their recommendations to award the tender to Abans PLC to supply Lenovo brand computer tabs
Although the TEC repeatedly refused to give approval to a brand that does not have the FCC product certification, the PAB for unknown reasons recommended to the Cabinet of Ministers to set aside the recommendations of the SCAPC to award the tender to M/s Metropolitan Computers and to award the tender to Abans PLC since the latter has fulfilled all major conditions of the tender.
The PAB in its report states that Abans PLC (Haier), E-W Information Systems Limited (EWIS), Abans PLC (Lenovo) and Softlogic Retail (Pvt) Ltd (MAXMO) have fulfilled all tender conditions sufficiently (as indicated under each hearing of appeals) for the final consideration for the award of this tender.
Technical specifications of critical nature
“How could the three member PAB headed by K.A.S. Gunasekera, Lalith R. de Silva and A.D.S. Gunawardena recommend the above four bidders to be evaluated for the final consideration claiming they have fulfilled all tender conditions sufficiently, when the TEC report says that Abans PLC (Haier brand) that the FCC product certification they have submitted is for a different model not for the sample provided which violates procurement guidelines 7.8.4. For Abans (Lenovo brand) too has provided only partial FCC modular certificationand the product does not seems to have approval for Bluetooth radiation although the wireless module is integrated with WiFi and Bluetooth. E-W Information too has not provided the FCC product certification as required and the name of the manufacturer of the device could not be verified during hardware inspection and could not verify the technical specifications of critical nature. It was the same with Softlogic Retails. They have not only failed to provide the FCC production certification, but the FCC ID provided was given for a different model, but not for the quoted brand. The name of the manufacturer of the device cannot be verified during hardware inspection. As such the TEC was unable to verify the manufacturer’s authorization letter given by the bidder. Considering these aspects, what made the PAB to recommend these for bidders for the final evaluation?” alleged the sources.
After a detailed evaluation of the bid documents received together with the sample devices and the casings that were provided, independent verifications from relevant standardizing authorities, technical specifications and inspection of hardware configuration, Metropolitan Computers and Abans PLC was selected for further evaluation. However, as the Lenovo brand has provided only FCC modular certification, the Education Ministry by taking a step further had written to Abans PLC on September 28, 2017 seeking for further clarification with respect to Bluetooth radiation of Lenovo MiiX 320 tablet.
By letters dated October 6, 2017 and October 9, 2017,Abans PLC had submitted further updates on the wireless component of the Lenovo MiiX 320. “At the time the bids were opened Abans had submitted Qualcomm FCC modular certification, but when the device was inspected, the TEC found out the particular device has Intel wi-fi module which was a major deviation and would have rejected the bid at the first round itself. However later, on the request of the Secretary Education Ministry, Abans PLC was allowed to change the originally submitted FCC modular certification along with the wi-fi module.This is against the guidelines of the Government procurement manual 2006. According to section 7.9.7 of the procurement manual, there may be a need to seek clarification from a bidder with the sole purpose of ensuring that the bid can be properly and fairly evaluated, but should not permit any substantive change to the bidder’s initial response,” sources further added.
Subsequent to the clarifications Education Ministry received from Abans, the SCAPC wanted the TEC to further evaluate the clarifications submitted for the Lenovo brand. TEC report dated October 10, 2017, once again had recommended the devise submitted by Metropolitan Computers as it has FCC product certification for radio frequency exposure safety standard of the devices.
The TEC report further states, ‘The documents submitted by Abans PLC on October 6, 2017 contains an FCCID that is not compatible with the network module in the sample device provided. The second submission submitted by Abans PLC on October 9, 2017 contains the FCCID network module inside the device.
‘The tablet device submitted by Abans PLC (Lenovo MiiX-320) has FCC modular certification for the device, while the device submitted by Metropolitan (Acer S1003) has FCC product certification for radio frequency exposure safety standards of the devices.
‘According to FCC certification guidelines, Product Certification and Modular Certification of the FCC Certification grant differ in the following manner.
‘If the device has the FCC Product Certification, the manufacturer of the device is legally responsible for health safety standards whereas if the device has FCC Modular Certification, the network card manufacturer is legally responsible of the health safety standard of the module. In the latter scenario, the manufacturer of the tablet device is not legally responsible to maintain health safety standards of the device. As the device will be procured by the Ministry of Education from the manufacturer, it is important that the device complies with Product Certification as required in the original technical certification.
“No necessity to select bidder based on safety standard”
-Education Ministry Secretary
Secretary Ministry of Education, Sunil Hettiarachchi when contacted told the Daily Mirror that there is no necessity to select a bidder based on the safety standard of the devices but should be on the prices which is affordable.
When asked as to why in the tender document, the SCAPC requested the bidders to submit the FCC Certification, if the safety standard should not be considered when awarding the tender, Hettiarachchi inquired as to whether this newspaper too is using mobile phones that has the FCC Certification? “If you do not consider whether the mobile you are using has the FCC Certification why do you want to know as to why the Education Ministry is not considering the FCC Certification when awarding the tender to procure computer tabs. Mind you, these tabs are given free of charge for the children and teachers.The device we are going to purchase is the lowest and well within our budget,” Hettiarachchi said.
Although when questioned as to why he sought further clarification from Abans PLC after the tender was opened by permitting the bidder to make substantive changes to the initial bid documents that have been submitted which is against Government procurement guidelines, Hettiarachchi stopped the telephone conversation abruptly.
Response from Abans
When contacted Assistant Sales Manager, Computer Corporate Sales Division, Abans PLC, Mahesh Perera who corresponded with the Secretary Education Ministry to find out why they submitted Qualcomm FCC modular certificate along with the bid when the wi-fi module that was in the device was different to what they have stated in the bid, Perera wanted this newspaper to contact the Pre-sales Engineer for any comment.
However the Pre-Sales Engineer too did not wish to make any comment and wanted this newspaper to contact General Manager Chatura Jayawardena for details. All attempts taken to contact Jayawardena failed as Abans PLC did not give personal contact details of Jayawardena until the paper went for publication.