In an article entitled "Harper's new savings machine: SSC invokes national security to expedite IT procurement
," the Ottawa Citizen reports that Shared Services Canada has invoked the national security exemption (a provision of international trade agreements) to pre-select suppliers of IT systems. The article quotes the Canadian Information Technology Providers Association - an Ottawa-based association formed to protect the interests of local resellers - as saying “This exemption basically allows SSC to procure any IT product and or service even remotely connected to email... the potential for abuse or misuse is substantial.”
Curious, I followed up with a call to CITPA board member Chris Coates of The Coates Agency. Our conversation reflected the ambivalence of the IT channel towards SSC's mandate and activities. On the one hand, the fact (quoted in the Citizen article) that the 43 departments falling under the SSC mandate run a total of 63 separate email systems is clearly ridiculous, and most of us can name other incongruities in government IT; as Coates said in our call, "everything that Shared Services is trying to do...is logical." There is no organization that benefits from having multiple, disparate, disconnected, overlapping systems, and no IT budget that pays to maintain and connect these systems is wisely spent. Additionally, PWGSC-based procurement can be out of step with IT cycles; according to Coates, when Shared Services told PWGSC of the need to launch a complex procurement, they were told that the turnaround time would be more than 580 days. Clearly, in an industry that moves as fast as IT, this is an unreasonable acquisition cycle.
So - less redundancy, faster decisions - these are desirable, logical goals. However, as Coates added in our conversation, "the problem becomes, how do you accomplish that?" Larger-scale procurements are likely not to work to the benefit of regional VARs; mass-scale orders will involve organizations with great scale, including national/global resellers or the vendors themselves. Coates also spoke to the spectre of outsourcing, in which a single firm would control access to the 43 departments - their users, their budgets, their upgrade and service requirements. He also believes that use of the national security exemption itself is "scary - very scary;" issues decided under this mandate are not subject to access to information requests, meaning that a tender could be decided in any number of ways (split across multiple suppliers, sole-sourced to a bidder regardless of total cost, not awarded at all, or only in part) without explanation to the industry that invests in understanding and responding to the IT needs of government clients.
At present, there doesn't appear to be a perfect answer: better use of IT funds is important, but so are the checks and balances of a fair, open, and honest procurement system; efficient acquisition and deployment of IT is important, but so too is the health of the IT industry that surrounds government, since it supports the process efficiency and innovation of its clients.
Irrespective of what the greatest good is, though, the reality is that shared services is changing and will continue to change the government IT landscape, and that current suppliers - including the VAR community - will need to find ways to adapt to the new reality.