Thursday, September 21, 2006

NDP’s patronage charge falls short

VICTORIA - The agency that produced the Liberals' election campaign ads was pretty steamed when the government decided to hold an open competition for a $150,000 contract to prepare anti-smoking ads.
Wait a minute, the people at TBWA/Vancouver said. No fair. We won the right to be the health ministry's ad agency. That's supposed to be our work.
Managers in the health ministry and the government's purchasing branch disagreed, pointing to government policies that they said called for open competition for all contracts worth more than $100,000.
TBWA/Vancouver started complaining to the health ministry as soon as the call for proposals was listed on the BC Bid website in late August 2004.
And eventually, after much confusion, internal panic and considerable wasted time and money - on behalf of taxpayers and the companies competing in good faith for the work - the bid was pulled.
TBWA was awarded the contract, over the spirited objections of some of the people involved in directing the anti-smoking campaign.
The NDP, brandishing almost 300 pages of documents obtained through a freedom of information request, this week accused the Liberals of political favouritism in awarding the contract. TBWA hadn’t hadn't just prepared the Liberal ads in the last two elections, the NDP noted. President Andrea Southcott was part of a small group of senior campaign advisors. The company had also prepared the “Best Place” government campaigns run in the lead-up to the election that looked much like Liberal campaign ads.
The government broke its own purchasing rules and over-ruled staff to reward its favoured ad agency, charged NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston.
Nope, said Finance Minister Carole Taylor. It was a mistake to call for competing bids and the government fixed it. Case closed.
So who to believe?
It’s confusing. Government policy, driven in part by a Canada-wide agreement on trade, does call for competitions for all contracts worth more than $100,000.
But the policy also allows for exceptions when there is a “corporate supply agreement.” If a government has signed a multi-year agreement to buy all its vehicles from one supplier, it doesn’t have to seek bids when it’s time to buy a batch of new heavy duty trucks worth more than $100,000.
Or, as in this case, when it wants to spend more than $100,000 on an ad campaign.
The concept of an agency of record is fading, but still convenient and popular in government. The idea is that you hold one contest and pick an ad agency that will get the ministry’s work for the next two years. The theory is the agency develops some expertise and the ministry is saved the time and trouble of seeking bids every time it wants to run some ads.
And there’s no suggestion that the selection process for agencies of record was faulty; it was endorsed by an internal audit.
On balance, the government did a pretty good job of rebutting the NDP charges.
But it didn’t emerge unscathed. If the policy of not seeking bids was in place, a lot of fairly senior people in the health ministry and the government’s purchasing department didn’t know about it.
And if the case was so clearcut as Taylor maintains, the government’s response to TBWA’s complaint was baffling.
The call for bids wasn’t cancelled for six weeks, until until after it had closed. During that time staff were involved in answering questions from bidders and setting up the assessment process. (And in trying to get clear answers about the pressure to cancel the whole thing.) Two other ad agencies were shortlisted for the work. The process finally stopped the day before they were to be interviewed by the selection committee.
The confusion and disorganization wasted a lot of time. The government’s public affairs bureau said it would take responsibility for compensating the two agencies for their wasted efforts, though it’s unclear if they actually got money.
The favouritism charge wasn’t proved. A charge of bungling would have stuck.
Footnote: In a strange twist, the NDP revealed the freedom of information request was made by NOW Communications, which was snarled in its own scandal over its dealings with the Harcourt government.


Anonymous said...

I recall the raving by the folks presently in government back when the NDP used "Now" for some of their PR stuff. Ran for the NDP you know, vested interests and all that. So I guess its all in the eye of the beholder and just what the taxpayers have to say. If it wasn't, this article wouldn't have been written or the piles of print against the previous government on their contracts, would have been shouted all over the place. If things are usually supposed to be bid on, why not this time as well?

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