SINGAPORE - The Auditor-General's Office (AGO) on Thursday (July 22) flagged to the President key lapses by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in record keeping and the approval of tenders.
Heritage items were missing from the records, bids in tenders were not evaluated, and purchases were often made from the most expensive option.
Another statutory board, the National Arts Council (NAC), had not done enough in the regulation of premises, with non-tenants using its spaces, including for activities unrelated to the arts.
Both statutory boards have pledged to do better and review their processes.
Referring to the NHB, the AGO said it conducted test checks of 18 tenders and found lapses in two of them. Both are period contract tenders where a list of goods and services are offered at pre-determined rates by contractors to the NHB for a specified time.
The nature of these contracts is such that the NHB can directly make purchases from any one of the appointed contractors without having to call for open tenders or quotations for each service thereafter.
The AGO found that in awarding these, the NHB had not properly considered tenderers' submissions, evaluating the price bids of only some of the items on the full schedule before making a decision.
For instance, NHB went through price bids for only 28.2 per cent of the items under the period contract for exhibition design services.
It also evaluated price bids for only 54.7 per cent of the items under the art handling and transportation services contract before awarding it.
The AGO added that even after the award of the contracts to a panel of contractors, the NHB's decisions regarding which contractor among them to buy individual services from was often far from economical.
Of the 435 service items bought from one contractor under the exhibition design services period contract, prices for 294 items, or 67.6 per cent, were the highest among the four experienced contractors awarded the period contract, and in one case was as much as 124 times the lowest offer.
Between June and December last year, this contractor received 52.9 per cent of the total value of purchases made under this contract, totalling $476,500.
Some $53,000 could have been saved from just four purchases the NHB made from this contractor in the same period, the AGO said.
It was a similar situation with the art handling and transportation services contract, with 213 of the 256 items awarded to one contractor being higher than the prices quoted by the other experienced contractor who also won the tender.
This contractor received 91.9 per cent, worth $727,400, of the total value of purchases made under this contract between November 2019 and October 2020.
Test checks of four purchases made by the NHB from this contractor showed that the same services could have been bought for about $131,000 less from the other.
The AGO did not name the contractors.
The NHB said factors other than cost were considered in its decision-making, as museums would consider the requirements of the projects and whether the contractor was capable and available.
For example, the quality of the contractor transporting artefacts is crucial to their protection so that donors and lenders will continue trusting the NHB, it told the AGO.
For the design of some exhibitions, museums had also asked for comparative quotes to ensure cost reasonableness, even if not all unit prices among those awarded the period contract were evaluated.
Following the AGO's findings, the NHB will review the items in the two period contracts and seek approval to remove those with rates assessed to be high. Future tenders will also be more carefully designed. The quality component of the evaluation criteria will be better set out.
As for the NHB's records of heritage materials - which it reported to be worth about $500 million - the AGO found hundreds of discrepancies between entries in NHB's manual and automated records, which are spread out over three systems.
At least seven items were not recorded, indicating that the records were incomplete, while the locations of 63 of 295 records that the AGO checked were wrongly logged.
In addition, 3,464 records were deleted from the Singapore Collections Management System (SCMS), used to process and track acquisitions, without supporting documents.
"AGO's view is that without supporting documents, there was a lack of assurance that the updating and removal of records from SCMS were authorised and valid," the report said.
"Good records management is important as the records of heritage materials are relied upon for tracking, stocktaking and reporting in financial statements."
The NHB said the deletion was part of a data cleaning exercise of invalid or repeated records, and only those with the appropriate authority would have been able to review and delete them.
It said its control over heritage materials was not solely through stock counts, but also through other means such as restriction of physical access to materials. It conceded the need for better documentary evidence.
The NHB is in the process of streamlining its systems and manual records into one platform, and will further review its processes, it said. As many heritage materials lack information, including those that date back to the 1880s, researching into and documenting them is a resource-intensive process and takes time.
The NAC, meanwhile, was found to have lapsed in the rental management of its 37 arts housing premises. The AGO said 74 entities which are not NAC tenants or sub-tenants either used the address of one of its premises as their registered address or possibly operated there.
Seven of these non-tenants were also using the space for activities unrelated to the arts, such as construction and logistics.
The NAC has since conducted a review and said it had found that most of these entities were related in some way to its tenants or former tenants, although it could provide documents to show this in only 10 of the 74 cases.
It has told the AGO that it will, from now on, require tenants to seek its approval before letting their related entities register using NAC addresses.
It will further conduct annual checks against records of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority and the Registry of Societies, deregister non-tenant entities, and make sure tenants know they should not use its spaces for non-approved uses.
It will perform checks to make sure rules are followed and carry out enforcement actions.
In addition, the AGO noted that NAC's guidelines to tenants on subletting left much to be desired. There were no requirements to declare conflicts of interest for bid evaluation by tenants when subletting their spaces. Evaluation criteria also did not need to be finalised before open calls for rental applications.
In one case, sub-tenancy agreements set out by the tenant were two to three years longer than what NAC had approved. NAC also did not check that sub-tenants fulfilled their end of the bargain, such as completing renovations amounting to at least $200,000.
NAC said it has started to review its subletting policy to make sure the process is fair, while tightening its oversight of such spaces.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.