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Buying into e-gov
Hurry up and wait

by Richard Bray

The federal government has less than two years to fulfill the goal, first articulated in the Throne Speech of October 12, 1999, of becoming "the government most connected to its citizens, with Canadians able to access all government information and services on-line at the time and place of their choosing."

As of mid-November 2001, two years later, some information technology (IT) vendors are wondering when they would begin to see the contracts that would allow Canada to claim that prize.

Ken Parker, president of Ottawa's Sirius Consulting, worked hard to persuade the government that small and medium-sized companies should qualify for Government On-Line (GOL) contracts. He also helped to design the Supply Arrangement system that should allow them to win a share of GOL business.

He believes that the GOL procurement process is "a major step forward. It gives companies a chance to compete, which is essentially what we want. It gives the clients the best choice at the time they need the resources. I think it is a good vehicle."

However, as 2001 draws to a close, Parker says he is much less satisfied with the pace at which contracts are being tendered through the procurement vehicle he and others in the vendor community helped to create.

"Are they going to use it?" he asks. After the tragic events of September 11, he notes, "A number of people in government have said to people in general, 'get on with your life, fly, spend money, get back to normal' and it would be encouraging if somebody would say to people in the government, 'this is what we're doing, let's go there.'"

Parker says a number of companies, including his own, positioned themselves to expect a good deal of business to come from GOL projects. "If it is not going to," he says, "then it would be nice to know that, so we can scale back or not carry through with hiring more people to deal with it. I think it is fair to say that having gone through all of this, [government] has created a fair amount of expectation and the volume of business, according to everybody I have talked to, just isn't there yet."

The 2000 Federal Budget called for a two-year, $160 million spending program for GOL. After departments and agencies responded to a July 2000 invitation for project proposals, a steering committee of deputy ministers selected and approved $60 million worth of proposals. In mid-November 2001 the GOL Procurement Office processed 33 requirements from departments and agencies, with a total value of about $26 million. Five contracts worth $1,216,000 had been awarded. (Information about the usage of GOL Supply Arrangements by client departments and the regional procurement offices was not available.)

To use the Supply Arrangement implemented by Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), client departments and agencies sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). By the middle of November, 22 departments and agencies - including Agriculture Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Human Resource Development Canada, Health Canada and Industry Canada - had signed the MOU, allowing them to issue contracts not exceeding $80,900 under their own authority.

Mike O'Neil is president of Nortak Inc. and chairman of CABiNET, an association of smaller IT consulting firms, many of whom are also looking for contracts under GOL. O'Neil says, "To me, it was clear that [the terrorist attack on] September 11 was going to do a number on GOL, we all know that. Maybe it will mean less money for GOL overall."

O'Neil says GOL activity was slow during the summer, "but the government is always slow during the summer. I feel that given what has happened, we are lucky to see anything happening at the moment." He believes many of the GOL contracts that are being advertised right now are being pushed out to get the money on the table before the December budget. "There hasn't been many large opportunities come up and those that have," he says, "might as well be a sole source."

Steve Chamberlain is the CEO of Ridgefalls House, another CABiNET member. "Many of the departments don't want to sign the GOL MOU, because they have already got many of their own tailor-made supply arrangements in place," he says. "The GOL rates that were proposed are higher, much higher than the rates that were proposed under many of the existing supply contracts that many of the departments have in place."

Chamberlain says if he were a project authority at a department or agency with such a supply contract in place, he would go to that mechanism first, for reasons of speed and convenience. "We happen to be one of the companies that holds a supply contract with CCRA [Canada Customs and Revenue Agency] and generally those requirements have to be filled within a period of about 48 hours."

Speaking off the record, a federal IT administrator in middle management says, "You'd go to those contracts because they are easy, you don't have to run your own processes, your own mini-tendering exercises or whatever." He speculates, "If they are in fact hiring that conveniently, you wouldn't expect a take-up until people are more pressed against the wall and there is a clear and urgent need to do something."

Many departments, the IT administrator points out, are beginning to discover the amount of coordination and cooperation that is required to implement online solutions, "and that would tend to slow it down also, so that until the different people working on the initiative between departments and their bureaucracies approve all these things - going up and down certain levels - that builds in a certain delay."

As well, he says, there is a certain amount of centralized infrastructure that is not yet available. "For example, Secure Channel keeps getting pushed out, so if Secure Channel is still being architected and tested, and if your project depends on that piece of infrastructure, certificate authorities - a whole bunch of things that need to be in place and centrally managed - well, if that is lagging, then take-up on that is going to lag."

He also suggested that some departments are taking advantage of the downturn in high technology to hire personnel that might otherwise not have been available. "Is it indicative that the government is doing less outsourcing just in general as a result of the climate?" he wonders. "Is the government, rather than requesting consulting services, are they using more service bureaus that are available?"

His advice to IT consultants who want to sell to government under GOL contracts is to get out and sell what departments can use. "I think they have to be a little more proactive, rather than sit back and wait for the dollars to fall the through the chimney. It ain't gonna happen."


Richard Bray is an Ottawa-based freelance writer specializing in the IT sector. He is a regular columnist with Summit, editor of Ottawa Computes and has been published in other magazines and newspapers in Australia, the United States and Canada. Before freelancing, he worked as a producer, reporter and senior writer for CBC in Toronto.


 

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