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Ah, sweet mystery of procurement

(To be sung, a cappella, to the tune of "Aw, Sweet Mystery of Life.")

Selling to government is a mystery for most small businesses - and a source of angst and frustration. They know that the government is a major purchaser and that their company could provide quality goods and services. But small (and, sometimes, medium and large) businesses are intimidated by the procurement process - by the language employed, by the amount of start-up learning required, by rumours and media accounts of improper practices and illegal actions and by perceived bureaucratic barriers.

Wouldn't it be great if there were a document that explains the "secret" process, policies and procedures that government buyers must follow? Wouldn't it be great if it was written in simple easy-to-understand language?

Well, Contracts Canada may have been reading our minds... but you can't find the key to unlock these mysteries in the vendor information section on their website. Their vendor information does go a long way towards unravelling many of the mysteries of the procurement process, but what vendors really want and need can only be found in the section for new government buyers. Their New Buyers' Guide is just the thing - a simple explanation of a complicated process.

The document, divided into 16 chapters, takes buyers (and those of us reading over their shoulders) on a step-by-step, logical development through the procurement process: what the rules of buying are; how we buy; how it starts; buying goods; buying services; the impact of the trade agreements; the impact of Aboriginal agreements and programs and other issues; how to solicit bids; evaluating tenders and proposals; what the forms of contract award are; preparing the contract; contract management and administration; what to do if something goes wrong; terminations; contract close out; and, best of all, this document is readily understood by vendors. It doesn't employ a lot of jargon and it explains the process from start to finish.

Here are some tidbits that, I believe, new vendors would find especially useful.

1. Talking about sole sourcing: "You may contract with a supplier without competition when the estimated expenditure is less than $25,000 for goods and services..."

2. On the subject of practices to avoid: "If you are honest and conscientious in your buying methods, you will soon learn that there are practices you must avoid awarding a contract to a company that has had previous contracts with your department or because a contractor has had work experience in your department, for those reasons only."

3. In discussing the evaluation of proposals: "The contract is given to the contractor who has been judged to be fully capable of undertaking the contract, and whose proposal is judged to be the best in accordance with the selection method chosen before the solicitation documents are sent out and based on the evaluation criteria selected."

The guide provides something missing from many government vendor information sites - information about how the process is supposed to be conducted. It provides clearly written explanations of the policies that federal buyers are bound by and committed to, about different types of procurements and when they are supposed to be used and the rules that buyers have to follow.

While some might argue that this type of detailed information is not necessary for non-buyers, I disagree. In my experience, many neophyte vendors look at the complexities of government procurement with scepticism -warranted or not is not the issue. Yes, most buyers work diligently at maintaining ethical procurement practices despite, at times, enormous political pressures and demands and, yes, incidents of policy violations are the exception rather than the rule. Rather than entering that debate, my feeling is that agencies, like Contracts Canada, should empower vendors with information about the process.

Moreover, I believe that most public bodies, especially at the provincial and municipal level, should take a bit of time to re-examine their vendor information to see what they can do to make it easier for suppliers to understand their procurement processes. Other agencies should look at the New Buyers Guide as a model and develop their own - an exercise that would provide valuable information for the agency's vendor community and ensure that the agency has a clearly articulated, rational and logical procurement process.

In my opinion, public procurement should not be mysterious. Potential suppliers to all agencies would benefit greatly if every public body had a buyers guide and promoted it as "information for vendors on how we buy goods and services." Empowering existing and potential vendors with information promotes vendor confidence, competition, and co-operation, leading ultimately to lower costs for both buyers and vendors.

Michael Asner (asner@compuserve.com), based in Vancouver, is internationally recognized as a procurement expert. He authors The RFP Report, published in Canada and the US; he contributes a regular column in Reseller magazine, a Sacramento-based publication; and he has authored several books on procurement, including The Request for Proposal Handbook and Selling To Government. He recently launched www.proposalsthatwin.com and www.proposalworks.com.



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