LCQ4: Internet Learning Support Programme
Following is a question by the Hon Emily Lau and a reply by the Acting Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, in the Legislative Council today (June 8):
The Finance Committee allocated $220 million last year to help needy families acquire Internet access service and computers, and such programme changed from the original plan of a single tender to separate implementation by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) and the eInclusion Foundation Limited (eInclusion). In reply to a question about the programme from a member of this council on May 25 this year, the Acting Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development indicated that the former Government Chief Information Officer, Mr Jeremy Godfrey, had concluded that it would be in the best interests of low-income families if the programme could be executed so as to incorporate the best elements of the proposals submitted by such two organisations respectively. As such, the Bureau engaged the two organisations in discussions but there was difficulty reaching agreement on a collaboration model to co-found an implementation agent, and the Government decided to engage HKCSS and eInclusion to implement the programme in two geographical zones. On May 26, Mr Godfrey made a submission to this Council pointing out that during the tender process, it was made clear to him that there was a political requirement to select a particular implementer, but he considered that this would not be in the best interests of low-income families, and he was also given unconvincing reasons for instructing him to formally terminate the original selection process and subsequently for pursuing the dual-implementer approach; he considered it more likely that these decisions had been influenced by political considerations and it might make him party to misleading the Legislative Council, he therefore decided to resign. In this connection, will the Executive Authorities inform this Council:
(a) whether formal investigation has been conducted to find out if it was implied to Mr Godfrey during the tender process that he was to select a particular organisation and if such a practice violated the tender procedures;
(b) whether investigation has been conducted to find out if Mr Godfrey was instructed to terminate the selection process, and the reasons for that; and
(c) during the selection process, whether the Executive Authorities were aware that the Internet Professional Association, which formed the eInclusion, has political party background; and whether they had considered that selecting such an organisation would make the public perceive that the Government was in favour of a particular political party?
The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) launched an open Request for Proposal (RFP) exercise between May 18 and July 5, 2010 for the Internet Learning Support Programme (ILSP). The RFP aimed at identifying the best implementation proposal and implementer. The RFP document set out the mandatory requirements (covering business skills, knowledge of the learning needs of students from low-income families, capability of managing a business start-up and experience of managing a project involving substantial public funding). The proponents were required to propose the detailed implementation arrangements. The Evaluation Panel conducted the assessment according to the published process and criteria. Upon selection, the proponent would submit a detailed funding and operation plan to OGCIO for approval and then enter into a legally binding Funding and Operation Agreement with the Government. Although the selection process is different from the tendering procedures for procurement of goods and services, the principles of fairness, openness and competitive bidding still apply.
Upon completion of the evaluation of the five proposals received and a procedural review, two leading proposals, from the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) and the eInclusion Foundation Limited (eInclusion), emerged. The former Government Chief Information Officer (Mr Godfrey) concluded that it would be in the best interests of low-income families if ILSP could be executed so as to incorporate the best elements of these two leading proposals. Upon conclusion of the RFP, the Government invited HKCSS and eInclusion to explore the possibility of collaboration by jointly establishing a non-profit organisation to implement ILSP. The Government engaged HKCSS and eInclusion in intensive discussions between October and December 2010 to explore possible collaboration arrangements. Nonetheless, they were unable to reach agreement on a collaboration model to co-found an implementation agent to take it forward. The Government therefore reviewed various fallback options carefully, including forming a Financial Secretary Incorporated company, OGCIO acting as implementer, single tendering/retendering, and dual-implementer approach with HKCSS and eInclusion as Implementers in separate geographical zones. Having regard to procedural concerns, accountability, speed of securing stakeholders’ agreement and finalising implementation details, and resource implications etc., the Government decided that engaging HKCSS and eInclusion to implement the programme in two geographical zones would be the fallback in the event that co-founding one implementation agent could not materialise. In early January 2011, when it became evident that attempts to invite HKCSS and eInclusion to co-found a single implementer failed, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) offered, and HKCSS and eInclusion accepted, a dual-implementer approach.
Mr Godfrey's memorandum submitted to the Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting on May 25, 2011 suggested that there was "a political assignment". This is untrue. In fact, both the former and the incumbent Permanent Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development (Communications and Technology) (PSCT) have repeatedly reminded him that the Government should run an open and fair selection process having regard to the interests of the low-income families. The contents of the RFP document, the evaluation criteria and the evaluation framework were set by OGCIO. Assessment of the proposals was conducted by the Evaluation Panel led by Mr Godfrey. The CEDB was not involved. The decision to explore collaboration between the two leading proponents was advocated by Mr Godfrey, who has confirmed in his memorandum that he made the decision in the interests of the low-income families and that there was no impropriety. The Government has all along stood by this decision with a view to securing the best delivery entity for ILSP. The decision to pursue a dual-implementer approach was a collective one made at senior levels after thorough consideration of all factors. Mr Godfrey had a different opinion on this approach. But differences of opinion should not be attributed to political consideration.
I reiterate that the ILSP selection process, from the RFP stage, evaluation of proposals to the adoption of the dual-implementater approach, was conducted in a fair and unbiased manner and guided only by what was best for the project in overall terms. There is absolutely no political interference.
My reply to the Honourable Emily Lau's three-part question is as follows:
(a) Mr Godfrey's allegation is unfounded. Mr Godfrey confirmed that he had conducted the evaluation in a fair manner. He also said both his former and current superiors had clearly advised him that the Government had to run an open and fair process having regard to the interests of the low income families. Mr Godfrey has confirmed this in his memorandum. We will not undertake any investigation on the basis of an unfounded allegation.
(b) The proposals were assessed by the Evaluation Panel led by Mr Godfrey. Upon completion of the evaluation, the Evaluation Panel submitted the outcome to the Controlling Officer, who was Mr Godfrey himself. In August 2010, Mr Godfrey presented an update to PSCT, reporting that despite the lack of consensus on the overall assessment, there was general agreement about the strengths and weaknesses of the two leading proposals submitted by HKCSS and eInclusion. Mr Godfrey considered that it would be in the best interests of the low income families if the Government could cherry pick the best aspects from each of the proposals. He proposed to invite the proponents of these two leading proposals to collaborate and consulted PSCT on this matter.
Noting the substantial amount of public funding involved but there was an absence of checks and balances, and observing that the evaluation process was not prudent and rigorous enough, PSCT sought the consent of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development to establish a review committee to review the assessment process and outcome of the Evaluation Panel to ensure that the recommendations and selection Mr Godfrey made were in full compliance with proper procedures and fair principles.
The review committee met twice in September 2010. It was agreed that the selection process was by and large fair and had managed to produce two strong proposals with very high scores. Since collaboration between proponents was not envisaged within the framework of the RFP, the review committee advised Mr Godfrey that if collaboration was to be pursued, it should be treated as an exercise separate from the RFP lest the excluded bidders would accuse the Government of moving the goal post in the middle of the RFP exercise. Having regard to procedural concerns, the circumstances of the case, Mr Godfrey's advice that it would be in the best interests of the low-income families to seek a collaborative approach, and the fact that the Government was not bound to select any proposal submitted under the RFP, the review committee had no objection to Mr Godfrey concluding the RFP exercise by not selecting any proposal submitted and pursuing the collaborative approach as a separate exercise. In October 2010, Mr Godfrey concluded the RFP exercise and commenced exploratory discussions about the collaborative approach between the two leading proponents.
Mr Godfrey has indicated in internal documents that it was his personal decision to conclude the RFP exercise so as to pursue the collaborative approach with the two leading proponents as advocated by him, with a view to achieving the best delivery of the programme for the greatest benefit of low-income families.
(c) The evaluation was conducted in accordance with the published process and criteria, focusing on the merits and feasibility of the proposals as well as the relevant experience and capability of the Implementer in ensuring successful delivery of the programme. The relationship between the Implementer and other bodies or organisations, or the background of the members of the organisations concerned, is not a factor for consideration. The Evaluation Panel had not taken into consideration these irrelevant factors. I reiterate that the selection process was conducted in a fair manner. The Government has carefully considered the effectiveness and timeliness of the various options in overall terms before making the decision. There is no political interference.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011