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In My Opinion
Free the data: Make procurement data available for repackaging

by Michael Asner

For the past five years MERX, owned and operated by the Bank of Montreal, has established itself as Canada’s central electronic tendering system under its contract with the federal government. This May the contract expires. There is much speculation on who or what the next reincarnation of MERX might be. I don’t think this is the issue. It’s not about MERX – it’s about control of the procurement data. At issue is: Is it in the public interest to restrict the distribution of procurement data or should the data be more readily available and should other organizations be allowed to repackage it to better meet industry’s needs?

MERX represents a major accomplishment in federal/provincial co-operation, evolving from a dedicated private bulletin board system used to announce federal procurements to the current Web-based tendering system with approximately 50,000 subscribers. And this was done as a partnership – a shared responsibility between the 11 governments that own the data on the system and the Bank of Montreal.

From the perspective of our federal government, MERX is a success. It “outsources” much of the paper-handling associated with the procurement process; it announces most federal procurement opportunities; and it satisfies Canada’s obligations under NAFTA.

From the perspective of our provincial governments, MERX can be used to satisfy the Agreement on Internal Trade requirements for posting opportunities. However, most of the provinces also have their own electronic systems. Posting on MERX provides them with few, if any, additional benefits. Some provinces argue that their provincial system is superior to MERX and has more functionality, and their participation in MERX is redundant. I think they are right. And in its attempt to satisfy its own needs by contracting MERX, the federal government forgot about its often neglected, often ignored stakeholder: Canadian industry.

The federal government owns the copyright on federal procurement data. MERX’s contract with the government gives it the monopoly on that data. Only MERX can publish, distribute or sell it. Suppliers have no choice if they want to find out about federal bid opportunities – they must subscribe to MERX.

Consider a business in any province – say an engineering company in BC – that wants to do business with the public sector. Their preference is local opportunities within their province followed by any public sector opportunities across Canada. (Groups of users, such as associations, have similar needs.)

The BC government’s BC BID (www.pc.gov.bc.ca) contains procurement opportunities for the provincial government and most public sector entities in BC, but federal information is not available. Also, not all BC public sector bodies use BC BID. For these, the engineering company would have to search the entity’s website.

No matter a company’s location in Canada, searching for public sector bid opportunities requires sources:

  1. A source for provincial bid information, including agencies, municipalities, hospitals, educational institutions. Some sources are owned and operated by provincial governments. Others, such as BIDS (www.bids.ca), which deals with Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, are private and aggregate data for multiple jurisdictions.
  2. A source for federal bid information. Only MERX does this.
  3. Sources for entities which are not listed in (1) or (2). Some associations post bid opportunities for their members: for example, the Ontario Public Buyers Association (www.vaxxine.com/opba). Some municipalities have their own procurement sites and there are private sector sites, such as Electronic Tender Network (www.bidnavigator.com) which covers more than 450 municipalities, schools, libraries, etc.

In the United States, public procurement information can be repackaged and sold, allowing suppliers to subscribe to the bid tendering service that best serves them.

In Canada, one-stop, Web-based shopping for government business requires two changes: one from the government side, in terms of laws and policies; and one from those operating electronic tendering systems.

The federal government needs to end MERX’s monopoly on the use of federal data. The same must happen at the provincial level. All procurement documents (RFPs, RFIs, ITBs, etc.) should be readily available and usable by all and not contain phrases like, “Copyright© 1996-2001 – Bank of Montreal – All rights reserved.”

Existing and new electronic tendering systems need to use technology that frequently searches the Web for new procurement opportunities and automatically updates its database. An example is Wood River Technologies in the US, which operates www.fedmarket.com, an electronic tendering system for federal, state and local government opportunities. This can only be done in Canada if public procurement data is not copyright protected.

Equal access to the data will motivate electronic tendering systems to differentiate themselves with added functionality and customer services to attract their subscriber base.

In my opinion, public policy is the critical success factor. Free the data! Foster the growth of new, more robust, more useful, one-stop-shopping centres for Canadian government business.

Michael Asner (asner@compuserve.com), based in Vancouver, 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. See www.proposalsthatwin.com and www.proposalworks.com.




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