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Canada’s New Agile Procurement Method Fosters Tech Innovation

“One could argue the government shouldn’t be experts in anything—we invest heavily in our tech sector so we should be able to reap the benefits of that without being prescriptive.”

It’s pretty easy to say that government entities are slow, lumbering bodies that often take longer than necessary to execute tasks and solve problems. What’s not easy is finding a solution.

The government of Canada is looking to improve their processes through a new agile procurement initiative that will look to solve two inadequacies: a lack of comprehensive accessibility for Canadians when it comes to searching for an applying to government jobs; and a more intuitive and accessible method to view Open Government documents.

Procurement is a term that refers to a government enlisting outside help from third-party companies to complete projects. Normally that can take years, but these recent pilot projects from the Canadian government are looking to expedite the process and bring in a new era of digital innovation and transparency—thus the “agile” qualifier.

This is good news for a Canadian tech ecosystem that traditionally only saw massive companies work with the federal government. If smaller companies can easily engage with the country over a small timespan, there is more work and more contracts awarded to the true innovators in the field.

“The goal is to trial a different way of going to market,” explains Alex Benay, chief information officer for the Government of Canada. “Here, we don’t do agile very well yet. We have historically bought big so we used to think that only big companies can interact with us. It turns out that in a digital world, smaller and nimbler is better.”

Benay is responsible for strategic planning, enterprise architecture, and is his own words, “changing how the government does almost everything related to technology.” He was a big part of the country’s first agile procurement initiative that saw the government select web designer Digital Echidna to improve the experience of the Open by Default portal.

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This new procurement to improve access to jobs and the Open Government portal is the second ever to be issued by the government, and it sports the longest application period yet—the first was two months long, and this will last three. The government recognized that the variance and ingenuity in pitches geared towards the first challenge were ideas the classic procurement procedure could never have facilitated.

“If you look at the normal procurement process, the terms and conditions screen out innovation almost from the get-go,” says Benay. “We’ve now shown that we can do a two-month procurement exercise and be very agile and inject technology rapidly if we want to.”

That new process involved several companies pitching their skills, culminating in a Dragons’ Den-style pitch-off. A similar finale is in store for this procurement challenge, with a slightly larger final purse of around $500,000. This selection method is one of the most important parts of the new process, and something Benay compares to the well-known XPRIZE.

“You can get three or four different solutions and inject them into your environment in a matter of months,” he says. “Why not use this challenge-based procurement process five times in the life of a project that lasts two years, so you can continually adjust your course?”

Another valuable aspect of agile procurement is that SMEs submitting applications are able to define and solve the problems themselves, instead of waiting for the government to spend up to two years defining requirements and missing the boat on currently available technology. Benay cites that the government often had to miss out on advances in AI and machine learning due to locked-in procurement projects.

Essentially, the government is striving to do less of the two-to-seven-year procurement projects and break things down into smaller chunks. This results in fewer locked-in contracts that bypass new technology due to red tape, and more collaboration between innovative companies.

“It forces us to partner with SMEs and look at completely different solutions that we probably wouldn’t have thought of ourselves because we are not the experts in everything,” says Benay. “One could argue we shouldn’t be experts in anything—we invest heavily in our tech sector so we should be able to reap the benefits of that without being prescriptive.”

If this process goes well, the government will look to keep using incubator networks around the country as a trampoline to assist in behaviour and technology stack changes.

Benay is on a mission to redefine how the government works with outside sources. If he gets his way, and open government and agile procurement becomes the norm, a new standard for public service to engage with solution development will occur. This lets SMEs innovate in both the private and public sector, increasing transparency and helping to keep Canada on the right side of governmental modernization.

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