Williams cleared in SITA probe

Controversial government CIO Michelle Williams has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Auditor-General (AG) in regard to the awarding of a tender for the provision of business process management services for the State IT Agency (SITA), ITWeb reports.
The news has sparked criticism that the AG’s probe was too narrow in its focus and failed to unpack the wider problems affecting SITA’s practices.

Nonetheless, the investigation did reportedly prompt public service and administration minister Richard Baloyi to establish a task team to oversee SITA’s performance and practices in future.

Williams, also deputy chairperson of SITA, was at the centre of a storm, in July last year, which saw the abrupt resignation of SITA CEO Llewellyn Jones, amid allegations of government interference in the agency’s procurement process.

Jones, a well-respected ICT industry veteran, was pulled out of retirement in October 2007 to head up the agency. This followed the resignation of then CEO Mavuso Msimang, who left SITA in May of that year to assume the role of director-general of the Department of Home Affairs.

At the time of Jones’s resignation, it was widely reported that a rift had formed between him and Williams. Sources closer to SITA said, at the time, that his resignation was caused by Williams instructing Jones – via SMS – to award a R1.5 million deal to Praxis Consulting and not GijimaAst – the company chosen by the SITA Bid Evaluation Committee.
“We asked the AG to undertake a full and thorough investigation of all aspects of the tender, from its advertisement [and] evaluation, through to its awarding and, specifically, to investigate any undue intervention by Ms Williams. I’m pleased to report that the AG has concluded in its report that there was no evidence of any impropriety on behalf of Ms Williams in the tender process,” says SITA non-executive chairperson Zodwa Manase.

She said this morning that she, as well as the rest of the SITA board, is satisfied the matter has been concluded and SITA can move on from the controversy.

Manase states that no evidence could be found that Williams was involved in the procurement process of the tender up to the final evaluation and recommendation by the Bid Evaluation Committee. The AG further found that Williams, as an e-government official, was entitled to assist the accounting officer in the final awarding of the contract, and was well within her rights to recommend to the former CEO that Praxis Consulting be awarded the tender.

Not a true reflection
“Ms Williams admitted to sending an SMS to the former CEO advising him to recommend Praxis Consulting, after she had received an e-mail from him requesting guidance. Notwithstanding her advice, the former CEO recommended the tender be awarded to GijimaAst,” says Manase.

She adds that the probe shows “Jones had confirmed the procurement legislation and integrity of the process”. However, she adds, the AG found Jones’s statement was not a true reflection of the actual course of events and that, in various instances, the processes involved in awarding the tender were in contravention of SITA’s procurement regulations.
“The AG also established that SITA had changed the criteria for functionality, price and BEE points, without the approval of the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), nor that of Williams, who was the designated official for the tender.”

Responding to claims that the investigation was too narrowly focused, Manase explains that the board sought a probe specifically into this particular deal to determine whether the allegations of interference by Williams had any substance. “As far as other issues affecting SITA’s practices, we agree with the industry that better controls be put in place to ensure that SITA officials comply with regulations.”

Specifically, Manase says, the AG has, as part of the investigation, recommended that SITA should improve its controls to ensure officials comply with its procurement regulations during the evaluation and awarding of tenders, and that action should be taken against officials who did not comply with the tender regulations.

However, she claims to have no knowledge of a task team being appointed to serve this purpose and says it is up to the minister to make this announcement.

Meanwhile, Jones declined to comment on the report this morning, but stressed he did not resign over one particular issue – namely the tender irregularities.
“That, in itself, is not terribly relevant. There have been lots of issues that cropped up over the months that I was there,” he says, refusing to elaborate.

Jones is currently back in retirement and is not active in the industry anymore, apart from holding some directorships and investments in a few companies.

Not good enough

One of the most vocal critics of SITA remains Black IT Forum chairman Mthunzi Mdwaba, who slammed the agency, as well as the DPSA, for a lack of transparency at the time of Jones’s resignation.

This morning, Mdwaba, who says the minister has appointed him as a member of the task team, stated the AG’s investigation was not adequate enough in getting to the bottom of the problems faced by SITA.
“The explanation by former public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi was not acceptable in terms of appointing SITA board members. No one seems to understand the criteria for the appointments and people with no previous board experience seem to be chosen.”

This particularly applies to Williams, says Mdwaba. “There is a lot of government interference, especially from Williams. I’m sure this is not even out of malice, but pure ignorance.
“The investigation was narrow – the SMS was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. The outcome of the probe was a lucky escape on a technicality for Williams – the investigation should have looked at the continuous interference and incompetence that is affecting SITA. Management needs to run SITA.”

Mdwaba states the task force appointed by Baloyi is made up of a diverse group of people, including a BEE practitioner and a labour lawyer.

At the time of publication, a DPSA spokesperson could not officially confirm the establishment of the task team and scope of its functions.

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