Bulgaria's government is pushing ahead with an ambitious programme to allow many public services to be accessed electronically, announcing the winner of a tender for the provision of an integrated electronic government (e-government) system at the beginning of September. However, in the short term at least, the project may be delayed amid allegations that the tender had been designed to suit a single bidder.
Under the conditions of the tender, the successful bidder is to provide fully functional hardware and software solutions that would make the mass of the state administration data accessible online and allow for many bureaucratic operations to be carried out via computer. As much as 90% of the money allocated for the project would be spent on hardware, according to the Ministry of State Administration, which is overseeing the scheme. The project is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2007
In late August, only days before the opening of the tender results, the Minister of State Administration, Nikolay Vassilev, admitted that Bulgaria was lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of digitalisation. However, Bulgaria's approaching accession to the EU meant that the government was stepping up its e-government programme, he said. The ministry was established in 2005 with the task of capacity building and improving state administration.
Measures enacted to boost the state's ability to take full advantage of online services included increasing the number of public servants trained in the use of new technology, acquiring new equipment and promoting awareness of existing electronic services, said Vassilev. Over the past three years, the Bulgarian government has been the country's largest buyer of information and communication technology (ICT) equipment and services, representing between 40 and 50% of all sales in the market.
In May, Vassilev identified e-government, along with the modernisation of administrative practices and the reduction of bureaucracy, as the key pillars of his mandate.
The minister also said that one of the main functions of the proposed system was that it would serve to reduce corruption in Bulgaria - an urgent solution to a problem identified by the EU. Thus, there is a certain irony that the e-government project has been accused of being afflicted with the very ailment that it was supposed to remedy.
Though a number of companies expressed interest in the project, only two firms - Siemens Business Services and Hewlett Packard - submitted final bids. When the tender documents were opened on August 29, Siemens bid came in at $2.64m, VAT not included, while that of Hewlett Packard was $707,000 higher.
However, when the government announced the winner of the tender, at the beginning of September, Hewlett Packard was awarded the project, on the strength of its proposal being 30% more successful in meeting the requirements set out in the bid process.
Siemens has announced it will appeal against the decision, claiming that its bid was going to make use of internationally accepted technology for the project, the main fault found in its offer. However, Siemens is not the only one crying foul over the programme.
As early as July, the chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Information Technology (BAIT), Zlatko Zlatev, claimed that the terms of reference in the tender documents had been drafted so as to favour Hewlett Packard, with the requirement that that firm's products be used in the implementation of the e-government project.
Bozhidar Danev, the president of the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA), was another to query the process, saying on August 21 that, "A distorting competition practice is to predetermine the contractor by means of intentionally formulated terms of reference".
According BIA, the tender documents set out the requirement that hardware for the project had to be produced by Hewlett Packard. Another requirement was for tendering firms to have already carried out two similar projects in Bulgaria, a requirement that only Hewlett-Packard met.
Vassilev has rejected the criticisms, saying that while the criteria for the tender was stringent, this was due to the importance of the project. The minister said that he would not make any compromises in the tender process and that the state's interest in the tender was preserved in the best possible way.
While the immediate process to launch Bulgaria's e-government project may be under a cloud, the scheme itself is not. When implemented, it is expected to streamline many of the state's more cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, allow for a reduction in public service staff numbers and the reallocation of other personnel and boost transparency at the local, regional and national levels of governance.