Public Works promises support for SMEs

A series of regional offices, a procurement auditor and integrity provisions in contracts will bring increased support for small businesses that sell IT products and services to Canada’s public sector, Public Works and Government Services said Tuesday.

Following a series of consultations with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and industry groups over the last two years, PWGSC said it will make a legislated commitment to fairness, openness and transparency in the procurement process. This will take shape through six Offices of Small and Medium Enterprises as well as “Policy on Managing Procurement,” a set of guidelines that will be independently reviewed. The six regional offices will be based in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.

In a conference call late Tuesday afternoon, Public Works Minister Michael Fortier said the SME offices will proactively promote the government as a potential SME client and act as advocates for smaller firms within federal purchasing departments. After years of complaints, the government recognizes the need to streamline and simplify its processes, he said.

“A lot of people out there that think they can’t access our business, that they need to comply with a million rules, which is not the case,” he said. “That is the wall we need to bring down.”

The procurement auditor, meanwhile, was a spin-off of the federal Accountability Act which was promised by the Conservative Party during the last election and which was tabled in Parliament last week. Public Works will wait until the Act is passed before hiring the procurement auditor, but Fortier said the role will be based in Ottawa with national responsibility for ensuring “user friendly” rules for suppliers.

“We haven’t yet determined the exact profile, but we certainly have bounced around some pretty obvious things that we’d be looking for,” Fortier told ITBusiness.ca. The ideal candidate will have both experience in the government as well as the business sector, he said, as well as solid grounding in procurement procedures.

Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) president John Reid said his members would likely welcome the changes, particularly the mechanisms to file complaints and an annual report to be tabled in Parliament that will involve engagement with procurement experts. In many respects, however, Reid said the Canadian government was only half way towards a more equitable and efficient procurement program.

“We do see that there may be some a fundamental change in mindset and a need to really emphasize much more the power of supply chains,” he said. “It’s not just getting the lowest cost procurement, it’s looking at it in terms of what it means for the Canadian economy.”

Fortier said Public Works has heard that message, and said that the government intends to consider the fact that some of its major purchases often go towards foreign-owned companies.

Taxpayers expect us to get value,” he said. “With respect to large ticket (items), however, they’re expecting their government to keep an eye on industrial development.”

Tying procurement to the Accountability Act could affect the speed at which business with the government is done, Reid added.

“There is a lot of uncertainty with people not understanding the scope of (the procurement auditor’s) mandate. I think that’s a real risk,” he said. “Despite having the right intention, you can create a real risk-adverse climate. You have to recognize the professionalism of the public service and give them some discretion.”

Fortier, however, promised the measures introduced Tuesday will not create more barriers to transactions between government and industry, although he acknowledged the drive to prevent corruption, collusion and the payment of contingency fees in the procurement process.

“Although it is very important another Gomery never takes place, we also have to look beyond Gomery,” he said, referring to the ad-spending program that came under a government-appointed inquiry last year. “We still need to buy office supplies, we need to contract for telecommunication and at times, as you know, we have to buy defence assets. The wheel keeps turning.”

Public Works has been grappling with procurment and the SME segment for some time. Last fall it launched a database where suppliers who want to offer professional services to the government can register to be considered for government opportunities. This was supposed to address what had long been a major grievance in the SME community by enabling small businesses to directly deal with the government without having to work as a subcontractor to larger consulting organizations like CGI or EDS.

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