A major update to a key British Columbia government website is more than a year overdue, and the province is keeping records that would show what went wrong secret.
In 2017, the provincial government announced it was seeking bids from companies to replace the old and no-longer sufficient BC Bid procurement system.
Public bodies including the province, Crown corporations, health authorities and municipalities make some 9,000 purchases through the system each year for goods and services worth about $7 billion.
“The current application is 25 years old and no longer meets the needs of buyers, suppliers and citizens,” according to a government web page. The page stresses the importance of government procurement to the provincial economy.
“This is the first step in overhauling the government’s approach to procurement and will help ensure that companies from every region of British Columbia have the opportunity to compete for the province’s business,” then-minister of citizens’ services Jinny Sims said announcing the replacement back in 2017.
The government’s announcement gave no indication of what it was spending on the project but did include a deadline. “The new BC Bid application is expected to be up and running in 2019,” it said.
But the replacement isn’t finished, and there’s no indication when it will be. When the BC Liberals raised questions in the legislature in 2019, Sims said it would be ready for use in 2020, a year behind the original schedule.
The government and the companies involved aren’t saying what’s caused the delay, and efforts to get relevant records through the province’s Freedom of Information process have so far been thwarted.
Several months ago, The Tyee heard from someone familiar with the BC Bid Replacement Project, but not in a position to talk publicly about it, alleging the project had been bungled.
They said three big technology companies had bid on the project, but two of them pulled out, and Montreal-based CGI Information Systems and Management Consultants Inc. won by default. CGI’s proposal had scored the lowest of the three submitted to the government.
The government proceeded anyway and what followed was a year of negotiation with CGI to arrive at a contract, the source said, then a strained working relationship where every change, no matter how minor, added a cost for the government.
CGI is a publicly traded company worth nearly $24 billion and had some $12 billion in revenue last year.
Calls to CGI’s Victoria office automatically go through to the company’s Montreal headquarters. Ivalua’s website lists no phone numbers or email addresses, but does have a contact form. Neither company’s representatives responded to The Tyee’s messages by publication time.
Nor was B.C.’s current minister of citizens’ services, Lisa Beare, available. She was appointed in November and inherited the project when it was already far behind schedule.
The Tyee began seeking answers about the BC Bid replacement more than three months ago.
Back in December, when The Tyee first heard allegations the project had gone off the rails, we filed a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for key documents from the procurement that could tell the story of what had happened.
Maybe they would show what had gone wrong, or perhaps they would make clear that the government was on top of the situation and there were good reasons for the project’s delay.
The documents we requested were:
- The agreements or contracts the government had for the BC Bid replacement with CGI or its subcontractors, including Ivalua;
- The scoring or other evaluation of the bids the government had received;
- Any records of changes to the contracts, including those affecting the schedule or budget for the project; and
- Records of any audit, investigation or other assessment the government may have made regarding the progress of the project.
The request was carefully limited to a small number of records that we understood should be stored together and easy to retrieve.
But the ministry, which also administers the FOI system, estimated a fee of $2,200 to locate and retrieve the records. It estimated the task would take 77 hours, only the first three of which would be done for free.
In discussion through the FOI analyst handling the file, the ministry said many different people had been involved at different stages of the procurement and it would be time-consuming to get input from all of them to fully respond to The Tyee’s request, which it saw as broad.
The ministry said the only document it would be able to provide without a fee — that it would be able to find within the three hours of locating and retrieving a record that it is required by law to provide for free — was the original contract awarded to CGI.
The Tyee said it needed more than just the contract to assess what had happened since it was awarded and still wanted everything we’d requested. We asked for a fee waiver on public interest grounds.
“Considering the acknowledged importance of the project to economic development, hundreds of public bodies, buyers, suppliers and (most notably) citizens, there has been very little information available to the public about its progress,” we argued. “The records... should provide the details necessary to assess the progress on this key project and the ministry’s allocation of resources to it.”
The Tyee also took issue with the ministry’s characterization of the request as “broad.”
“I deliberately focused [the request] on very specific records that I understand would normally be kept together in a procurement process like the one for the BC Bid Replacement and therefore very easy to locate and retrieve,” we said.
“If there are specific parts of the request the ministry believes pertain to records that are unlikely to be centrally located, it would be helpful to have those identified so that I might consider narrowing or otherwise adjusting the request.”
The ministry did not provide a detailed response and instead denied the request to waive the fees. “We anticipate that the majority of the records that would need to be searched in response to your request would not relate to a matter of public interest,” it said.
The analyst with the FOI office went back to the ministry with new wording agreed on with The Tyee on March 11, wording intended to make it even clearer we are seeking specific, basic documents that shouldn’t require a massive search, but the ministry is yet to respond.
The experience is not unusual in an FOI process where many applicants complain that public bodies appear to use inflated fee estimates to discourage them and use various ways to delay or deny access to information.
The NDP government came to office in 2017 promising to strengthen B.C.’s access to information legislation, a system it heavily criticized in opposition, but appears to have lost interest since forming government.
Meanwhile, the only updates available to the public on the BC Bid replacement project are the ones the government chooses to provide.
According to the government’s website, “The BC Bid Replacement project team is working diligently towards a successful launch.”
Good to know. But it would be easier to believe if the project wasn’t more than a year overdue and if the government was willing to release the key documents that would show why it’s delayed and what, if anything, it’s done about it.