Canada’s Open by Default Procurement Pilot: an Experiment in Agility

From July to September 2017, two departments in the Government of Canada worked together to pilot a new approach to buying digital services. I work for one of those departments and I want to share a bit about what we did.

The new procurement approach is faster than our traditional approaches. It focuses on the bidder’s perspective and tries to make it as easy as possible for suppliers to compete for a contract.

The new approach isn’t perfect. But we think that it’s a step in the right direction. In this post, I want to tell you about some of the steps we followed. More importantly, I want to invite you to help us improve the way we buy digital services.

Let’s start at the beginning…

The Government of Canada has made ambitious commitments to advance openness and transparency. Take a look at the mandate letters, the directions that the Prime Minister gave to all his Cabinet ministers to set their priorities. All of the letters say that “Government and its information should be open by default.”

One of our key tools for advancing openness is the open government website, Open.Canada.ca. My team at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) is responsible for Canada’s commitments on open government and we have worked hard with our partners across government to pack the website with lots of content. Today we have over 60 federal departments and agencies that have published almost 120,000 pieces of information (mostly data) on our site.

At the beginning of July, we launched a new element on our site, an open by default pilot portal. For us, the new open by default pilot portal constitutes an experiment in radical transparency. We created a way for people to access our internal draft documents, to peek behind the curtain and see the kinds of documents we produce on a day to day basis. You can learn more about what we did on our blog.

We finally had a tool to start living the vision of being open by default! Unfortunately we also had a problem. We had packed so much content onto our website that it was starting to be difficult to use.

We decided to ask people to help us solve the problem. Our team at TBS joined forces with the department that specializes in purchasing solutions to problems like ours, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

PSPC worked with us to develop an adapted challenged-based method of supply. The goal was to seek innovative concepts for our requirement that would get better outcomes for us, the client, while being easier to work with for potential bidders.

Background: How we learned to stop worrying and love procurement

No more 200-page RFPs. Instead, bake-offs and competitions. No more blind marriages with big IT providers, instead constant dating. …more show and less tell, more focus on working prototypes [so] that we really see what a company or provider can do, more competition and more agile providers.
- The Honourable Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board, May 2017

Open government is a governing culture that fosters greater openness and accountability, enhances citizen participation in policymaking and service design, facilitates innovation, and creates a more cost-effective, efficient and responsive government.

So how did we end up mixed up in a procurement pilot? Skip ahead to the next section if you’re just interested in what we ended up doing — this section provides some insight into the context we were operating in.

The Open Government Website

Open.Canada.ca is one of the tools we use for open government in the Government of Canada. It was launched in 2012 as a single purpose data portal. It has since evolved to include a fairly extensive suite of information resources and to facilitate engagement on the open government initiative and associated activities.

We think we’ve done a pretty good job building our website. It’s entirely open source (here’s our code) and we were recently recognized as a global leader on open data (we were thrilled to be ranked #2 in the world by the Open Data Barometer). But as we continue to promote open government and to release a growing number of resources, we have realized that we need to make it easier for users to find information on our site. We also want to make the site more engaging and fun to use.

We’re constantly adding new information to Open.Canada.ca. Our vision is for it to become a hub of data, information and opportunities to participate and learn.

The Open by Default Pilot

We decided that it was time to start looking seriously at how we could become open by default. As a government, we have a strong track record of openness, but we wanted to go further. We wanted to see if we could build a technical solution to invite citizens backstage to take a look at our working documents before they are finalized and officially published. Not only could the solution provide access to valuable information, we figured that it could go a long way towards signalling just how serious we are about openness while also starting to promote a culture that fully embraces open by default.

To get the ball rolling, we asked four partner departments to share documents that are now available through this new portal. Initial partners were Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Heritage, Natural Resources Canada and us, TBS. We also worked closely with PSPC to build a solid technical solution and hammer out our procurement strategy, which I’ll describe below.

We currently have 543 documents on the new portal, a drop in the ocean considering the wealth of knowledge held within the Government of Canada. For the purpose of this pilot, we were careful to adopt a strategy that wouldn’t create any unnecessary risks, excluding potentially problematic documents (e.g., documents containing personal information). The pilot provides a snapshot of the world of government or a kind of a backstage pass.

In a nutshell, we managed to build the open by default portal by connecting our internal document repository, GCdocs, to our external content catalogue that you see on Open.Canada.ca and that we use to keep track of our open data. It leverages existing operational systems including the Open Government website and internal departmental document repositories to provide the technical platform.

The Challenge

As we were building our new open by default portal, we realized that we were facing an increasingly urgent usability problem. Not only did we have a massive amount of information already on our website, but we were proposing to add way more!

We decided to ask Canadians to help. We wanted to find a supplier to develop an innovative pre-commercial, open source solution that would enhance and improve the user’s experience on our website. We especially wanted to make it easier for users to find and retrieve information housed on the new Open by Default Pilot Portal.

Specific Problems We Faced

Here are a few examples of the kinds of problems that we identified to potential bidders:

  • Our search function didn’t respond well to plain language queries
  • We were required to manually index everything we put on the site, which is time consuming and can introduce errors
  • There wasn’t consistent use of controlled vocabularies, which made the search function less effective than it could be
  • It was hard to find content on the website
  • There weren’t a lot of options for visualizing information and data assets
  • The website interface was pretty tough to use in general

You can see more information on our challenge, along with the criteria we used to evaluate bids, in our Call for Proposals. It’s available on our tender notice.

Constraints

We were adamant that whichever solution was selected would actually be viable, so we specified that the solution would have to be integrated into the Open Government website’s existing digital infrastructure. It had to enhance the user experience of the Open by Default Pilot Portal but given common infrastructure, we also expected it to improve the Open Government website as a whole.

Beyond that, we specified that the maximum contract value could be up to $75,000 plus applicable taxes. We also specified that we needed an open source solution and we provided the selection criteria in our Call for Proposals. We deliberately avoided setting too many requirements in an effort to allow as much innovation and creativity as possible!

TBS Goals for the Open by Default Procurement Pilot

We adopted a few goals for the procurement pilot:

  • Challenge-based — We wanted to launch an open-ended challenge based on usability and innovation to leverage the creativity of experts to improve our website
  • Fast — We wanted to award a contract really quickly, executing the entire process within two months and awarding a contract the day we finished our evaluation
  • Open — We wanted to be accessible as clients, providing responses to potential bidders through a webinar and completing our evaluation through a Dragon’s Den style event

Essentially we wanted to quickly capitalize on our investment in building the open by default portal to meaningfully enhance user experience on our website.

Timelines

In addition to having some pretty significant challenges to face, we wanted to make fairly quick progress. Here are the timelines we set out for ourselves:

Timelines we set out for the Open by Default Portal and Procurement Pilot

Procurement Approach

We were thrilled to be able to work with PSPC on this process. PSPC served as the contracting authority, safeguarding the integrity of the process, while TBS was the client and technical authority. Working with PSPC, we landed on an approach that we thought would allow us to achieve many of our goals. Key characteristics of the approach:

  • Challenge-based — Open ended challenge based on usability and innovation
  • Competitive — Canadian Suppliers eligible; posted on www.BuyandSell.gc.ca
  • Fast — Accelerated timelines with very quick contract award
  • Webinar — interactive Q&A session during solicitation
  • Centre of Expertise Panel Evaluation — Dragons’ Den-style with external experts
  • Open source code — Enabling the use of Open Source solution
  • Scalable — We set out small, aiming to create a basis on which to scale and iterate

Steps We Followed

We worked with our colleagues at PSPC to design a procurement process that would meet our needs while complying with our procurement requirements. The general approach that we followed these broad steps: pre-solicitation, solicitation, multi-phase evaluation, and contract award.

Steps we followed for our procurement pilot

In case you’re curious, here is our merry band of Stage 2 evaluators; we explained our role in this blog post.

L to R: yours truly, Alannah Hilt, Gareth Keane, Mélanie Robert, Nicole Verkindt

Next steps

Our next step will be a full evaluation of our agile procurement approach, so stay tuned for the results. We’ll issue an official survey to gather lessons from the industry. Keep your eyes peeled on buyandsell.gc.ca for PSPC’s survey. We need your feedback.

Once we have completed the lessons learned, we will share the results and hopefully get more feedback on the areas of improvements for the next pilot. We’re really please with results so far, but there are also probably lots of ways that we could improve further. We’re also really keen to hear about potential improvements from our international colleagues.

Once PSPC completes its evaluation of the procurement process, we plan to quickly scale and iterate our second pilot. Stay tuned!

Note: I am an employee of the Government of Canada but this is not an official publication of the Government of Canada. This is me supporting a government that is open by default and walking the open government talk.