Bianca Wylie is an open government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement. She is the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in the Global Economy program.
Outdated government procurement regimes for information technology (IT) are grey areas, spaces that enable a range of actors to exert influence on public service delivery and public infrastructure. Technology and consulting companies, and their business models, are wedging themselves between governments and the governed.
Government IT procurement, as it stands today, is a policy vulnerability—a place where symptoms of deeper issues manifest. It exposes residents and governments to a range of risks, including a loss of control over important decisions regarding government operations, access to public services, or due process in resolving disputes.
Some of the possible fixes for this problem have much less to do with procurement directly, and more to do with how the public service is organized and operates, which includes human resources and broader policy thinking. One of many approaches to better manage these issues is increased investment in rebuilding and expanding government capacity in the technical realm.
Governments in Canada, at all levels, are doing it. But they should be doing much more. Aside from being able to build and direct more of the new government architecture and projects, it is also about providing increased guidance and oversight in government purchasing.
Governments have significant experience managing commercial contracts with companies. In a conversation I had with Sean McDonald, principal at Digital Public, he put it like this: “The prevailing, and somewhat destructive, fiction about technology procurement is that it’s so “disruptive” or “different” that normal rules shouldn’t apply. But the part about which rules apply and how—that is a government decision. In 2019, we need governments capable of confidently making and enforcing those decisions.”
There are glimmers of hope at all levels of government in terms of building out digital capacity, including some projects focused specifically on procurement, such as this recent handbook from 18F. Digital services divisions are often organized as small teams and projects with big mandates and too little funding but the start is there. This is a moment to create more space for them, and to grow them.