Upgrading procurement with a digital solution when Pakistan needed it the most

HYDERABAD, PAKISTAN. Photo: Visual News Associates / World Bank

Businesses are finding it challenging to operate the way they did back in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world into adopting a new normal. However, it has also provided an opportunity for the private sector and businesses to expand through digital transformation and explore new markets and customers.

The World Bank’s portfolio in Pakistan faced unprecedented challenges at the outbreak of the pandemic. The major challenge was to ensure continuity in project implementation and address any disruptions in the procurement process. The efficiency and soundness of procurement often determines how fast the Bank can disburse funds to our client countries. Lockdowns, office closures and the need to ensure social distancing caused persistent delays in procurement as the bidding process, for goods and civil works, requires a manual bid submission – a common practice under Bank-funded projects in countries such as Pakistan. The Bank was receiving continuous requests from our clients to extend the bid submission deadlines resulting in delay of activities and disbursements.

Understanding the need to keep Bank-funded investment projects running, Bank’s Islamabad Procurement Team proactively explored various alternatives to manual bid submissions. After assessing risks with other options and in consultation within the Bank, the team proceeded to pilot a ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) based e-Procurement platform. After undertaking market surveys and discussing with similar platform providers, the team quickly put together the Terms of Reference, mobilized a budget and brought a firm on board to implement the system by the end of May 2020.

Since time was of the essence, the firm was provided a target of 30 days to customize and deploy the system, including user training and establishing a dedicated helpdesk. With a herculean effort by the firm’s staff, Bank procurement staff and Government counterparts, the system was successfully launched in July 2020. A three-day online training was provided to 25 government staff, who were thoroughly engaged and committed to the system’s rollout. 

Following the launch of the new system, the Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) became the first Bank project to solicit procurement bids on July 29, 2020 and successfully carry out electronic bids by September 2, 2020. This is the first for any Bank funded project worldwide. Despite little or no precedent or practice in the market, DCRIP received four bids online. This project supports COVID-19 response related activities.

The first experience brought to attention the need for some improvements in the system such as the feature to modify the qualification criteria after publication of the IFB. The government also pointed out that there is a need for more hands-on experience in managing the system.

In their feedback, the bidders requested for interactive training rather than reliance on the system’s user manual. Despite these initial hiccups which are being addressed, the process represents a game changer in the way procurement can be managed in the future in Bank funded projects and in the public sector in the absence of any electronic procurement system in the country.

Ansar Yaqoob, Project Director (DCRIP), added, “The process of e-procurement went well organized and seems more suitable for future procurements of goods especially in the emergency situations like COVID-19. Unwieldy paperwork in conventional procurements may be avoided with passage of time by further implementation of the e-procurement system.”

The second IFB was published by Temporary Displaced Person – Emergency Recovery Project (TD-ERP) on Aug 31, 2020 with a bid opening date of Oct 6, 2020.

Rehman Qamar, Program Manager (TDP-ERP), said, “We are very proud to introduce e-procurement to our project. Currently we are in the implementation phase of e-procurement where we have invited bids using this platform. We find it not only easy to implement but also experienced overwhelming participation from vendors. E-procurement not only enhances transparency but also adds competition and efficiency to the project process."

The pilot for e-Procurement has multiple takeaways:

There is urgent need for countries to develop their own e-procurement systems to address this and other future emergency situations. The Bank provided support to address the immediate need, but this is not a sustainable solution. The current solution only helps Bank financed procurements move forward while hundreds of others financed by domestic funds or other resources are stuck with little or no progress. COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to embed and expand digital transformation.

This is the right time for the World Bank, governments, tech firms, and other partners to strengthen collaboration and bring pragmatic technological solutions to public sector operations.