ITAC chief talks procurement reform

Bernard Courtois may visit Toronto for a few days each week, but he still lives in Ottawa. That’s where the policy-makers are, and that’s where the Information Technology Association of Canada wants to make its mark.

Courtois

joined ITAC last year, bringing a lawyer’s background and the perspective of a telecommunications firm (he was Bell’s vice-president of regulatory affairs) to the helm of one of Canada’s largest technology associations. In the last few months he has met with Industry Minister David Emerson, created alliances with other groups and was recently quoted by Public Works Minister Scott Brison in a keynote speech. 

ITBusiness.ca spoke with Courtois on one of his visits to Toronto on Monday to get his perspective on procurement, government spending and Canada’s place in a globalized economy.

ITBusiness.ca: ITAC recently hosted a CIO roundtable. What kind of themes or priorities emerged?

Bernard Courtois: I found it very interesting because we had (Ontario CIO) Greg Georgeff and 10 CIOs come in and explain their plans for the next few years. What struck me is how much will be going on. There is a significant degree of business transformation taking place in the Ontario government. There is a big push towards Service Ontario reaching out to the public. There is the need to replace a lot of outdated systems, both equipment and software. There is a huge mess of systems that have to be simplified, knocked down to one or two. There’s obviously going to be a lot of ramifications, but there’s a lot of cleaning up to do. All this with a view to cutting significantly the cost that the government pays for what it does today, and freeing up the ability, hopefully, to spend on the things that will increase productivity and service to the public.

ITB: At the federal level, what was your response to the recent announcements by the government to change the way it purchases IT?

BC: Our industry has been pressing for procurement reform with government generally for quite some time. We feel that governments are much too complicated to deal with, and they cause our industry to spend more money than it should selling to governments, which in turn means governments are paying more than they should. The process is too long, it’s way too cumbersome, and it involves too much negotiation of things that in the commercial world are accepted on a standard basis. The government is doing procurement to save a lot of money, just as automakers are going after their suppliers to save money. We know that with more aggressive purchasing prices may be squeezed, but we’re saying if you can streamline the procurement process, we will save money ourselves, and therefore will remove some of the frustration. Secondly, if you’re a smaller enterprise trying to sell to government, it’s a bit of a nightmare. For some of them, this streamlining is really essential if they’re going to participate in this market. We are happy to see the government is going to create an office for small business in Public Works. That should help smaller enterprises navigate this incredibly complex system. 

ITBusiness.ca: What about the move to winnow down the number of vendors the government deals with? Won’t that push smaller enterprises right out of the market?

BC: That’s an interesting thing, because there was an impression that the smaller vendors would be completely cut out and that the government would go to a handful (of vendors). But that’s simply not plausible. It doesn’t work that way. There are some very large and complex projects, which are the big challenge for our industry. Those have been difficult for the government as customers to deliver on. In my area, strategic buying should help navigate some of the pitfalls, because some of the pitfalls come from trying to load up all the energy on the lowest-priced bid going in. Then problems develop down the line and you develop contractual disputes and so on. But the government, like any large enterprise, buys a whole range of things, and some things lend themselves to strategic buying, and some things don’t. We’ve had, for example, the famous case of 83 companies bidding on a $50,000 project. That’s silly – how could all those people be wasting all their time doing that?

ITB: Other industry groups like CATA have been merging or acquiring other associations. Instead, ITAC has chosen to partner with CIPS Toronto and the York Technology Alliance. What’s behind that strategy?

BC: The association’s fortunes are largely dependent on the fortunes of the industry. When the industry crashed, the associations had a hard time and ITAC was not spared that. I was lucky, I guess, to take over at the start of 2004 when things were picking up. Now, there’s no doubt that there are still sectors that are having challenges – some portions of the semiconductor industry are having a difficult time but some portions are having a great time. What we found at ITAC is our industry generally speaking is picking up. When that happens, people raise their head above water and starting thinking about the policy and longer-term issues that are essential to our future. In that sense, ITAC had already had more depth on policy issues than most other associations, and we capitalize on that. Because of that, our membership has grown substantially. We’ve sort of filled out a lot of gaps of people that have dropped out – the telco sector, for example – and we’re filling out our membership on a regular basis. We had no need to merge or bring in other groups. However, we realize we play a national role and there are technology associations that play provincial or regional roles.

We believe that it’s in the interest of our industry to work with those associations and support them. We’ve created something called the Canadian ICT Federation, which is a alliance of ITAC plus the technology associations in each of the provinces. They are sort of half-way. A provincial association will work on development of its members – helping them with their business plans and so forth – but they’ll also play on the policy level a little bit. We can help and work together on policy issues, and they help on developing our industry within their province.

ITB: What can ITAC do to help its members mitigate the economic fallout of the U.S.’s rising deficit, given the level of cross-border trade in IT?

BC: Our industry is in a unique position. It’s important in its own right: 550,000 jobs, five per cent of the economy, 35 per cent of the private sector R&D. What we think and what we’ve told Industry Minister Emerson is that we’ll be happy to ride the coattails to help Canada face the future. We know that our role is not our 550,000 jobs, but that we drive productivity in the rest of the economy. We’re seeing this global phenomenon happening in both manufacturing and knowledge jobs, and our future is dependent on Canadian enterprise to be more aggressive in adopting this.

Our industry is also at the forefront of seeing things move to China and India and so on. One of the reactions to the massive deficits, particularly the fiscal deficits of the U.S., is to diversify our trade and go to economies that have a longer-term chance of sustained growth, which are China and to some degree India. People should not forget India because it’s so large, and it’s not growing as fast as China but it’s growing fast.  Canada’s role will be to take advantage to this proximity to the U.S., because the U.S. may face difficulties but it is still by far the biggest economy in the world. That’s our advantage. But in order to capitalize on that advantage, Canada needs to see itself as part of a spectrum, where the different advantages or different countries are brought to bear.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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