Why is Government [Procurement] So Slow?

Updated: Oct 16

We often hear people talk about the “speed of government.” This is usually opposed with the “speed of business,” implying that businesses can make a decision and act quickly, whereas government is very, very slow.

This is largely true. Though one could make the argument that large businesses can’t exactly turn on a dime. But, there are good reasons for this, especially in the area of procurement.

It’s important to acknowledge that Government is huge. The Government of Canada employed almost 290,000 people across the country in 2019. To put that into perspective, the parent company of Loblaw (a very large retailer in Canada) which has retail shops across the country, has about 195,000 employees. So, while American or British readers may see this number as relatively small, for Canada, this is a significant number!

Canadian public servants work very hard to make the best decisions for Canadians. Most if not all public servants feel the weight of being responsible for the taxpayers money, and they think long and hard about how and why to spend it.

On top of that, there are a plethora of rules, regulations, and policies that must be followed for any given spend. A good example is the Financial Administration Act. This Act requires different people to sign off on different parts of a procurement: One person has to sign off on the budget, and another has authority to actually sign the contract. It is not permitted for the same person to do both. Presumably, this is a safeguard against fraud – otherwise, it could be very easy for one person to sign a contract to give business to friends and family.

When planning a procurement (or any project), there are always lots of different stakeholders from different disciplines. And of course, the bigger the project, the more stakeholders. For example, a government department wants a new IT system. Let’s see who would be involved:

  1. The IT department. They need to make sure the statement of requirement will result in a system that will fit with existing infrastructure and standards.

  2. The user department(s). They need to make sure the functional requirements are correct and make sure any new system meets those requirements.

  3. Procurement and contracting. They need to develop a competition that will result in a requirement that will meet the needs of IT and the users, in a way that meets procurement practices, laws and guidelines, manage the evaluation, draft the agreement, and get the process to contract award.

  4. Translation / Official Languages. They need to make sure language requirements are met.

  5. Treasury Board or senior management. If the spend is large, it typically needs special approval.

  6. Security. They need to make sure personnel security requirements are considered and properly included, as well as any security requirements for the software, and then process documentation as it comes in in the bidding or contract award stages.

  7. Legal. In some cases, a legal representative may need to review and approve any draft form of agreement / contract that needs to go out with the solicitation, and then again get involved in any negotiations.

That is a fair number of people. And with all those people can come more complications.

First, people do not always agree early on as to who holds what responsibility. It is a fairly common conversation where multiple groups feel they should be responsible for different parts of the documentation. They feel this or that responsibility is “their call.” This can lead to minor project conflicts and slow downs. These can get bigger if more than one person or group involved feel like they are the lead of the process as a whole.

Different people and different groups handle these things differently – there is no real standard, even when there is one. For example, it may be common that the procurement division is the lead for the entirety of a solicitation. But, if a procurement is not a large dollar value, a procurement representative may decide to give that to the client department. If someone is used to that because they do only small procurements infrequently with the same person, then they might think they should always be the lead, and get confused and agitated when they are not.

On top of that, people often feel the need to “put their stamp” on a process. It seems a fairly common trait—possibly in any large organization—that people feel the need to have their input on something, no matter what. It is rare that someone would review something and say “that’s fine.”

There will almost always be comments and edits to anything anyone reviews, which means the document owner has to review and accept those (or even send back comments on the comments for discussion), and then possibly shop them around again to other stakeholders to make sure they are okay with whatever changes. Then those people might have more comments and edits, etc etc.

Add to that my earlier point, that more than one person might feel a given document or process “belongs” to them, and that can lead to some pretty serious slow downs.

A final item is that people can and do move fairly fluidly in the public service. Indeed, this ability to move and advance your career as you see fit is an excellent reason by the public service can be a great employer. However, this means that changes to personnel mid-project are not uncommon. This becomes probably the biggest type of slow-down in a project, because: the new person might feel they need to be responsible for something that someone else was already responsible for, and they may feel the need to “put their stamp” on everything.

One can see that there are a lot of reasons government can be slower. Canadians can rest assured, though, that for the vast majority of public servants, their primary motivation is, “how can we get the best outcome for Canadians in this project?” It is full of very dedicated people.

Even with most other concerns dealt with up front – a clear project charter where everyone agrees who does what, and on what timeline; clear lines of decision and who gets the final say on each document; a dedicated project team that does not change at all; and everyone gets along great, like best buds from high school – consultation across all these groups just takes a long time.

Next time you are wondering “what is taking so long for the government to do this thing??” think about everything that needs to be done in order to get their wheels turning. And, then good things do happen quickly, thank your nearest public servant for the herculean effort it can take to get through all that so fast!


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