Wendy Southworth runs a bustling enterprise with clients from the public and private sectors. She's always on the lookout for new business opportunities.
The owner of a Fredericton-based recruiting services company is one of many Canadian entrepreneurs who try to tap into the $16-billion worth of good and services the Government of Canada purchases every year, ranging from office supplies to marketing services. The activity provides sales to companies ranging in size from home-based small businesses to multinational corporations.
Companies interested in doing business with the Government of Canada have two options. One is to secure small contracts through contacts they have with federal employees. The second is to prepare a proposal responding to a specific government need that's publicized through a tender.
Entrepreneurs such as Ms. Southworth have, for nearly a decade, exclusively turned to a provider known as MERX for information on these federal government tender opportunities.
That will change on June 1, as Ottawa concludes its contract with e-commerce solutions provider Mediagrif, the parent company of MERX, and launches its own tendering website called BuyandSell.gc.ca. "We use MERX regularly, at least bi-weekly right now, and more often when we anticipate tenders to come out," Ms. Southworth says.
But using it, she adds, is not always easy. "Provided you search properly, it works well. However, there are times that if you don't use the exact name or tender number you could miss seeing an opportunity."
Her MERX experiences are part of the challenges many entrepreneurs face when they look to do business with the federal government. "The bidding process has always been very cumbersome, labour intensive and requires a keen eye for detail as one little mistake can jeopardize the whole bid," Ms. Southworth says.
Government contracts make up less of her overall business activity than they have in the past, she points out. "We used to do quite a bit more business with the federal government, however in recent years there has been a significant decline," Ms. Southworth says.
She says bidding on government tenders has become difficult and cumbersome.
Her story is familiar to Edan Puritt, project manager for BuyandSell.gc.ca. Mr. Puritt and his team have been working on the new website for almost two years.
He says the new tendering portal is a response to four years of feedback from entrepreneurs and other stakeholders with an interest in doing business with the federal government. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 20 per cent of its members do business with the federal government, with 24 per cent learning about contract opportunities through MERX.
The free website will feature many tools, including the ability to simultaneously search and browse through information such as current and coming bid opportunities, existing Standing Offers/Supply Arrangements – highlighting long-term offers the government has secured with a select pool of qualified suppliers – as well as take advantage of access to historic contract information issued by Public Works and Government Services Canada since 2009.
BuyandSell.gc.ca will soon include a revised supplier registration feature with support for direct deposit information, Mr. Puritt says. "It will soon look more like an app store on Apple," Mr. Puritt says.
He adds that an easier to navigate website will help businesses better access the information they require. This should encourage more enterprises to bid on government tenders and reduce the risk of missing information on a tender opportunity. The open source platform offers companies the opportunity to set up value-added services such as email tender alerts, Mr. Puritt points out.
The move to the new tendering website is welcomed by the 109,000 CFIB members. "I think overall it's a positive move," says Louis-Martin Parent, CFIB's senior policy analyst, who says MERX can pose challenges for many users. "You had to know where to get information," he says.
Responding to the feedback of entrepreneurs and creating a new easy-to-search hub of information on tenders is a good thing, Mr. Parent adds.
But MERX does have many users who enjoy the current website, he says.
MERX Networks spokesperson Paul Bodnoff says his company will continue to serve clients after June 1. "At MERX, our focus has always been to work to meet the procurement needs of our public sector customers at every level of government across Canada. We service over 3.900 public sector clients in Canada. After June 1, we will continue publishing Government of Canada procurement opportunities and provide value added services to our suppliers."
Mr. Parent's members have not offered a large amount of feedback to the federal government's decision to launch the new tender website, he says, but the ability to do business with the federal government is vital to members and must be supported. "It's significantly important," Mr. Parent says. "For many businesses, it could be their main source of revenue."
A June, 2011 CFIB member survey, entitled Big Opportunities, Bigger Challenges, flagged a number of problems with procurement and made several suggestions on how to improve the process, ranging from better payment turnaround time by government clients to less emphasis on issuing large bundled government tenders. A beefed up BuyandSell.gc.ca website was one of the recommendations.
Federal government records show approximately 10,000 opportunities are posted annually to the public through a tender information website.
"On the surface, this could be a good strategic move for the federal government," says Dannie Brown, assistant professor of Organizational Management, specializing in International Business and Business Competitive Strategies at Cape Breton University. "However, it begs the question that unless there is something wrong with the current system, why are they making the move? Are they simply duplicating something already in existence, reducing government efficiencies and costing the taxpayer unnecessary expenses?"
Public Works and Government Services Canada spokesperson Annie Duguay says taxpayers will save money. "This move will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the service," Ms. Duguay says.
She says new data and services will be added to BuyandSell.gc.ca based on the needs of stakeholders. Ms. Duguay adds the MERX contract expires at the end of May. "Mediagrif, the owners of MERX, provided excellent service," she says. "The new tenders service provides open data to allow third parties, including Mediagrif, to re-publish federal tenders as a part of their product offerings."
The Office of Small and Medium Enterprises (OSME) will offer seminars to businesses interested in learning more about BuyandSell.gc.ca during the month of May.
Special to The Globe and Mail