Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Exclusive: Meet the other Quick Wins

Governments are intricate webs of offices, boards and committees that quietly go about much of their business away from the public eye.

One of the many such groups in British Columbia’s government is called the Procurement Council, an arm of the Ministry of Finance.

I obtained, via Freedom of Information, agendas and minutes for this group of bureaucrats involved in finding suppliers of goods and services to government. These documents were an instant source of curiosity and hilarity when I noticed numerous references to Quick Wins

You may have heard of the BC Liberals' Quick Wins scandal: Aides to Premier Christy Clark conceived the Multicultural Outreach Strategy in late 2011/early 2012 and their "playbook" included a list of so-called "Quick Wins" to score points with ethnic voters. The document, released by the NDP, was evidence that Liberal aides violated the government's code of conduct by spending the public dime while doing party work on government time. It is now under RCMP investigation. 

The Procurement Council documents show that there were other Quick Wins being contemplated elsewhere in the B.C. government around the same time. Procurement Council minutes mention the Enterprise Contract Management Solutions working group conceiving a list of 25 Quick Wins.

The specific list wasn’t disclosed in the documents I obtained, but “Quick Win #1” was. That was a specific proposal to consider raising the $25,000 threshold for competitive tendering on government contracts to $50,000 “to allow for a simpler selection process":
“Tamara McLeod advised that any increase in the thresholds would require a rational and defensible justification. The ECMS Working Group (Janet McGuire and,Jenny Hutchison) will do some quantitative analysis research to support the increase, including on the administration costs connected with preparing and soliciting RFPs.”
Provincial procurement rules state government contracts estimated to be worth $25,000 to $75,000 (or $25,000 to $100,000 for construction) “must be awarded using a competitive process.” 

“Opportunities can be posted on BC Bid or at least three quotes must be obtained.” 

Loopholes exist for direct awards to maintain security or protect life and health, in case of unforeseeable emergency, if a supplier is uniquely qualified supplier or the contract is with another government body. Contracts under $25,000, the rules say, "should be competed to the extent reasonable and cost-effective." Notice that the word is "should" (instead of "must").

The threshold remains $25,000. A representative of the Finance Ministry, who refused to permit publication of his name, told me: 
“The enterprise contract management solutions working group is tasked with finding ways to streamline and standardize contract management across all ministries. Any proposals put forward by this working group regarding possible changes to government core policy would require Treasury Board and Cabinet approval prior to implementation.”
Could change be on the way? 

The BC Liberals’ 2013 election platform promised to increase small business procurement by at least 20% and: 
  • Streamline RFP processes for government procurement to ensure small businesses can compete for government contracts on a more level playing field.
  • Limit RFP paperwork for government to a maximum of two pages for contracts under $250,000 so that small businesses can apply and compete.
On Aug. 29, the government appointed veteran bureaucrat George Farkas (the assistant deputy minister in the Management Services Division) to lead the "Small Business – Doing Business with Government" project. 

Keep an eye on Farkas and the red tape-cutting Liberals to see if that $25,000 threshold does get raised after all. 

Increasing the number of no-bid contracts might streamline government operations and please some small businesses, but it could also elevate the risk of waste and cronyism. 


Paul Ramsey said...

Talking to both government staff and in the small business IT community in Victoria, raising the minimum no-bid amount would indeed be a huge win. The current situation feeds the growth of "huge bid" situations, and "pre-qualitifed vendor" lists that lock out smaller competitors. Current limit has been in place for *20 years*, raising it would indeed by a "quick win" in the best sense.

Unknown said...

$50K without bids would be the maximum allowed, not the minimum. And no matter what the limit, common sense and prudent stewardship of our tax dollars should dictate that bids are always obtained unless it is demonstrably in the public interest to sole source the requirement. How many of us would spend $50,000 of our own money on a home project or acquisition without getting quotes? Why should it be any different with public money?

The maximum limits without tenders are often taken as a green light to forego bids and go to someone really trusted. Like a brother-in-law or an old school chum. Senior bureaucrats and politicians largely find a way to skirt the limits anyway when they want to, no matter what the thresholds are. Hell, a billion-dollar public railway can be sold to a best friend and supporter without a proper process if one has a mind to.

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