the world of e-government
by Richard Bray
Suppliers alert buyers to e-gov opportunities
In the digital world, innovation moves so fast that even people at the extreme leading edge of one technology may have little idea of what's happening in another field of research. So how can public servants, charged with putting together the infrastructure for electronic government, hope to write effective and meaningful Requests for Proposals (RFPs) when the range of products and services changes so quickly? The challenge to vendors, large and small, is to alert the procurement community to the opportunities.
One answer is the Council for eGovernment Solutions, an emerging association spearheaded by Bernie Gorman, the former federal chief information officer, and Bruce Lazenby, president and chief operating officer of Ottawa's FreeBalance Inc. In mid-September, representatives of more than two dozen companies assembled in a downtown Ottawa boardroom to ensure that governments are aware of all their e-government options.
Council co-chair Bernie Gorman cut quickly to the developing group's raison d'Ítre and major challenge when he talked about a company that had missed some mandatory requirements in an RFP. The civil servants who drafted the document, he said, "weren't aware of some of the things that were out there that might have allowed that company to qualify."
Another participant, fresh from a travel services procurement conference, quoted a government official as saying, " 'We don't know what e-solutions are available.' This is happening more and more often."
However great the need to educate public servants, Ottawa is a city full of groups and organizations trying to engage government. Tactics are important: are you partner or antagonist, do you choose cooperation or confrontation? The clear choice was for consensus, and the council is taking care to avoid being perceived as a collection of sales teams, anxious for an inside track. The desire to be seen as neutral and educational extends even to the name of the organization. Over the summer, the word 'Canadian' was removed, to eliminate any appearance of bias. "What is distinctive about this council," an attendee noted, "is not excluding foreign companies."
Participants concurred on the need to do something "dramatic" quickly, to catch the attention of bureaucrats shopping for solutions. One way to do that is a demonstration laboratory. "There is really no place where people in government can go, in a real physical sense, and see what's out there," Gorman said. One test of any group's commitment is a request for volunteers. Not only did people step forward to staff a demonstration laboratory committee, there were immediate commitments of company time and resources.
As an investor in smaller companies that develop e-government products, merchant banker Peter Kemball said, "I think the real effect this council can have, and that I believe it can offer, is in saying to anybody, 'Here is a place to find out what your options are, we aren't going to tell you which option to choose.' The first thing in writing an RFP, which is the real sharp end of the procurement process, is to know what your options are. Don't inadvertently write something and screen them out. And that happens; it's easy to happen."
Marlon Oneid, representing Maxlink, a broadband internet service provider, said, "If you put them altogether in one group, one voice, that can promote as well as share information that they have to offer, you will probably see that government will find a lot of value in it. Will that impact procurement? Procurement is procurement. You just hope to share the information - that they will listen to it. I feel that we have a lot to offer and that government will be looking at this."
Many of the companies represented in the meeting have made major investments in developing products specifically for the e-government market. Most if not all of them are ready to contribute their time and expertise in getting the government procurement community up to speed on the latest products and services quickly and thoroughly.
The council has a deliberately narrow focus - e-government solutions. Judging by the speed and efficiency with which the group cleared a long agenda in a two-hour meeting, public servants will soon have access to "neutral" pre-RFP advice and information, delivered through a website, meetings and conferences and through direct contacts.
Richard Bray is a Nepean-based freelance writer specializing in the IT sector. He has been published in magazines and newspapers in Australia, the US and Canada and is now editor of Ottawa Computes. Before freelancing, he worked as a producer, reporter and senior writer for CBC in Toronto.