SMB criticizes feds’ attempt at procurement reform

An Ottawa-based small business executive is questioning the seriousness of new measures announced by the federal government last week to help small enterprises compete for government contracts against larger companies.

The procurement reform measures, introduced by Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) last Friday, include a new database where, starting Dec. 15, suppliers who want to offer professional services to the government can register to be considered for government opportunities. This is 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.

But Bruce Lazenby, president and chief executive officer of FreeBalance Inc., said the Government of Canada is merely tolerating small business rather than promoting it as a vendor to the government.

“Until the policy changes, all we’re seeing here is some giveaways to mitigate the downside during an election campaign,” said Lazenby, who served 22 years in the federal public service as the senior financial systems executive of the Department of National Defense and as commander in the Canadian Navy.

FreeBalance, a Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) member, develops government software for budgeting, purchasing, revenue, access and grants and sells planning, implementation and sustainability services to more than 100 government departments and agencies worldwide.

Friday’s announcement is the result of months of collaboration among the federal government, small businesses and industry associations like CATA, which made several recommendations to the government. PWGSC has spent the last couple of months touring the country meeting with business leaders and industry associations to discuss issues surrounding procurement.

“(PWGSC) is very committed to make additional steps,” said CATA president John Reid. “It seems that they’ve fully grasped the importance of changing the guidance for Canadian procurement. These steps are tangible. People understand those.”

One of the main issues raised at the recent meetings was regarding companies that aren’t covered by one of the existing standing offers under professional services, said Marshall Moffat, director general, office of SME, PWGSC.

“This is a tricky area because professional services are very difficult to define because they’re very high-level,” said Moffat. “There has always been some confusion on part of departments and on part of suppliers on whether a particular service that a department wants or a particular service that a company is providing is covered or is not covered by one of the existing standing offers.”

To address this issue, Moffat said PWGSC is going to clarify to departments which professional services are covered by standing offers and which ones are not so that the government doesn’t have to use a company on a standing offer when that service is not covered.

Other steps PWGSC has taken include new procurement vehicles, such as the introduction of seven Regional Master Standing Offers (RMSOs) starting in late January 2006 for businesses selling office supplies to government offices.

PWGSC also recently created the Office of Small and Medium Enterprises (OSME), eliminated feeds to use the government’s electronic tendering system (MERX) and has adopted a plain language initiative to ensure contracts are easy to understand.

CATA is also recommending to the department that it set up an independent panel comprised of public and private sector members to monitor procurement for fairness and publish all contract awards on the Web in one location, among other suggestions. The industry association and PWGSC have both said they will continue to work together on these issues in the upcoming months.

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