Working on open government in Canada as a contractor

This is part of a series in which I explore different, high-level ways to work on improving how government works and how citizens inform, direct and monitor that work, from the perspective of open government and civic tech.

In this series’ introduction, I described working as a government contractor as one way to deliver improvements in open government. While I have experience contracting with government as an organization, this post looks at contracting as an individual only.

Here are your options with the federal government (the options at provincial, territorial and municipal governments are similar):

  1. Be a casual worker for 90 working days per calendar year
  2. Negotiate small contracts as an independent contractor
  3. Work for a large agency that contracts regularly with government

This post is based on conversations with federal government contractors.

Casual worker

Casual workers are “most often hired as short-term replacements for staff and to help manage heavy workloads. At the more senior levels, casuals are used to bring in an expertise in order to support a special project or to transfer knowledge.” Casual workers can be hired at almost any pay scale, up to EX-05 or $172,200/year.

As a casual worker, you can work for the government at most 90 (working) days per calendar year. 90 days is 18 weeks or just over four months. If you work the last 90 days in one year and the first 90 days in the next, you can work eight consecutive months — but you’ll have to wait 16 months to perform the same trick a second time.

Casual work is a short-term strategy for working in the federal government. If there’s one project that you care about that can be completed in eight months, it’s an option. Casual work can also be a stepping stone to future work with the federal government in different capacities — either as a contractor or as an employee.

This caveat aside, the hiring process for casual workers is quicker and easier than any other. Appointments of casual workers do not require a formal hiring process based on merit or seniority, so you may have little or no competition.

Although hiring is quick, you will usually need to then complete reliability status security screening, which can take anywhere from a couple of weeks up to a few months depending on how much the department wants you and how quickly the screening can be performed based on your background.

A bit of inside baseball: The screening occurs after your contract is awarded, and while it isn’t free, the department usually pays for you. It’s often transferable between departments, but some roles require re-screening or a higher degree of security clearance, like those in the Department of National Defence or the Canada Border Services Agency.

If you’re speaking to government employees about potential work, remind them that casual work is a hiring option; unless you’re speaking to a hiring manager, they may not know about casual worker status.

Independent contractor

If the total value of your services is less than $25,000, a federal department can award a contract without a competitive process. (The ceiling may be different for other governments.) You can have multiple contracts with different departments. The ceiling is not cumulative across all departments.

If you’re already informally advising a government (and the value of your services is under $25,000), one strategy is to formalize the advice as a report for a fixed price. Don’t be afraid to ask your contact what their budget is.

Alternatively, it’s possible to negotiate a retainer agreement, in which you’re paid an hourly rate. The hourly rate may not be as profitable as the fixed price for political reasons; for many types of work, it can be easier to explain a $10,000 report than to explain a $150/hour rate. Although it may be less profitable, negotiating one retainer agreement may be more practical than negotiating many fixed-price reports.

I don’t know many individuals contracting with government on open data or open government. It is a struggle, but negotiating a few contracts can defray the costs of lots of free advice.

Large agencies

You don’t need to already be working for a large agency to pursue this option.

Doing business with the government as an unincorporated individual is sometimes impractical or impossible. The contracting process may put conditions on whom the government does business with: for example, requiring a minimum number of years in business or a minimum annual revenue (in millions). It may limit, handpick or even randomly select potential bidders. It may collect fees to participate in the bidding process.

In these circumstances, it’s easier to have a contract with a large agency that wins the contract with the government, rather than attempt to pursue it yourself. Your agency contract will usually prevent you from going to work directly for the government within a given period. (In some cases, the non-compete agreement is fairly comprehensive; in other cases, it’s limited to a specific type of role or field of work — read before you sign!) If the agency’s government contract isn’t renewed, they may let you go; otherwise, they’ll usually renew your contract annually. The hiring process will vary from one agency to another.

Governments hire agencies for all sorts of work: policy, research, technology, and more. However, as a contractor at an agency, you’re usually paid to execute rather than influence. In some cases, you will not have direct contact with public servants; in other cases, you’ll sit next to them. You should expect the start of the contract to be slow or delayed.

For a list of large agencies, see the Supply Arrangement (SA) Holders in this Tender Notice.

Finding opportunities

In Canada, buyandsell.gc.ca is the place to go. Here’s an example of a tender notice directly relating to open government to give a sense of what kinds of words are used. One strategy is to do keyword searches for active, awarded or expired tender notices, then create email alerts with the best keywords. To give a sense of scale, one contractor I interviewed saw fewer than 10 opportunities per year relating to open government. Possible keywords for open data might be: data initiatives, data modeling, data architect, data governance or information management.

If you’re thinking about joining an agency, you should also look at who was invited to bid on, who bid on, and who won the kinds of contracts you’d like to work on, to help you decide which agencies to apply to.

There are different types of tender notices which you may want to learn more about, such as National Master Standing Offers (NMSO), Task-Based Informatics Professional Services (TBIPS), Request for Proposals (RFP), etc.

Roughly speaking, governments create supply arrangements or standing offers (other governments may use different terms) in order to quickly and regularly procure a class of goods and services from a list of pre-cleared, preferred suppliers. You must first join a standing offer (also advertised on buyandsell.gc.ca) to bid on its related opportunities. One independent contractor described standing offers as good passive revenue streams.

Timing negotiations

You can arrange a contract as a casual worker or independent contractor at any time. That said, summer is often the worst time, because many people are on vacation and it may therefore be difficult to complete the process. Near the end of the fiscal year (March 31) is often the best time, due to the common, informal budget practice of ‘use it or lose it.’

Thanks to Lex Gill for editing this post.