Ottawa has been having huge problems buying military hardware. From jet fighters to combat vehicles, the processes keep getting longer and messier. Does it really have to be so hard to spend our own money?
In government, process is everything and the procurement process is caught up in a battle between contractors’ rights to pitch their products and officials’ rights to buy the tools they want for the job. As taxpayers and citizens we should be concerned.
As citizens, we see our tax dollars as, well, ours. And when we elect a government, we assume it has the right to spend them on our behalf. But does it?
Murray Brewster brings the question into sharp relief. He recently got hold of a government briefing note on the process to replace aging Search and Rescue (SAR) planes. Although it was launched back in 2004 under the Liberals, the process is nowhere near completion. The case shows just how dysfunctional military purchases have become.
In theory, the purchase seems simple enough. First, officials were to draw up a list of specifications for what the new planes need to do. Then contractors were to submit bids to show that their plane was the best one for the job, at the best price.
But SAR hasn’t bought any new planes for decades and the technology today is light-years ahead of where it was then. So to provide proper specs for the new planes officials had to do some research first—six years worth.
When they finally got their list together, the contractors exploded. They claimed the department got so focused on the strengths of one plane that it ignored the advantages of all the others. As a result, they said, its list of specs was stacked in favour of that plane. And this was unfair.
But is it? Why can’t a government do its homework and then decide on the best tools for the job? Isn’t that the whole point of developing specs?
Suppose you’re buying a new home entertainment centre. For those of us who are not tech-savvy, this is challenging. The capacity of these systems greatly exceeds our technical knowledge, so we must take the time to shop around and learn about the products.
We start by telling the sales folks what we want, but that is just the beginning. They, in turn, will tell us about other things their product can do—things we didn’t know but that might interest us. As we learn, we realize how these features could change our entertainment experience.
In short, we let the sales people pitch us on their product and, as long as they’re not pitching too hard, we listen and learn. Once we feel we’ve heard enough, we make our purchase. That’s how the process works.
The same holds for big procurement processes like planes or ships, though on a grander scale. And this is what happened with SAR. The more officials learned about the new planes, the more ideas they got about how to rebuild the program around them. This, in turn, meant their specs for the plane got increasingly precise—until the contractors cried foul.
Indeed, they hollered so loud that Defence Minister Peter MacKay had to overhaul the bidding process. MacKay’s idea was to sweep aside the learning of the last six years to give everyone a fair chance to make a pitch for their plane.
Officials were told to scrap their specs and instead to ask contractors to explain how their plane might be leveraged to improve the overall program. For example, now a bid would not only focus on the type of aircraft, but set the number of aircraft SAR needs, and even the number of bases required to meet the level of service.
This is just weird. To see why, let’s go back to the home entertainment centre. In the new process, you would visit a number of stores, tell the salespeople what you want, and then ask them to tell you how their product might best improve your entertainment experience. You would then compare notes from these visits and make your choice.
But this is a bad way to buy a new system. The sellers don’t know what will best improve your experience. You are the expert on your home life, not them. They are the experts on the systems. What is missing here is the dialogue between you and the sellers. That is an essential part of the process. It lets your thinking evolve.
The same holds for planes, ships or trucks. Officials and contractors must be free to sit down before the bidding process starts to discuss how different tools could be used to change the program. The bidding should then be based on this learning. So, yes, government does get to say what kinds of tools it wants for the job.
Nevertheless, there is also a question of fairness here. But the issue is not government’s right to make choices about the tools it wants to buy. It is that too often the discussions leading up to these choices have been shrouded in secrecy.
No one knew who spoke with whom or why the government drew many of the conclusions it did. That is what the contractors were really angry about and what they wanted fixed.
Simply cutting off the dialogue between officials and contractors is the wrong answer. No one benefits from this. Surely, a process could be designed that is open and transparent enough to allow such conversations to take place, while ensuring fairness for everyone.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan