Procurement ombudsman eyes greater reach

Peter Kovessy
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Currently restricted to investigating only relatively small government contracts, Canada’s little-known procurement ombudsman said he wants to help resolve disputes involving larger solicitations.

Federal procurement ombudsman Frank Brunetta.

Currently, the Office of the Procurement Ombudsman is restricted to reviewing complaints from government vendors concerning contracts worth less than $25,000 for goods and less than $100,000 for services.

Disputes involving higher-value contracts must go before the Canadian International Trade Tribunal.

"That's starting to be a little problematic," said procurement ombudsman Frank Brunetta in a breakfast speech in Ottawa Friday, adding the CITT process can be "cumbersome."

"I want to see if there are areas I can identify and provide service for ... that fall above our dollar limits (and) can't be dealt with by the CITT," he said in an interview following his remarks at Eggs n' Icons, co-hosted by OBJ and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

During the last fiscal year, the office was contacted 329 times, leading to 110 complaints alleging an unfair evaluation process, an overly restrictive mandatory criteria, a biased rating scheme, a statement of work favouring a specific bidder or other concern.

Created under the Conservative government's Accountability Act and in operation since 2008, the Office of the Procurement Ombudsman investigates complaints, ensures alternative dispute mechanisms are available and reviews the procurement practices of government departments.

While some observers say the creation of the office is a worthwhile effort to promote accountability, they also say it needs a stronger mandate.

"It should have real investigative powers in order to provide clarity on some issues - simply accepting the statements of bureaucrats involved in procurement is not something that builds confidence," said Serge Buy, senior partner at government relations firm Flagship Solutions.

Mr. Buy, who has represented several clients involved in procurement disputes with the federal government, also questions whether lifetime bureaucrats should be heading such offices.

"Can a bureaucrat investigate his or her former colleagues in an impartial manner? Can a bureaucrat really understand the concerns of businesspeople?" he asks.

Mr. Brunetta joined the public service in 1978 and is a former assistant deputy minister in Public Works's oversight branch, where he oversaw the prudence and transparency of the department's operations.

"Most of my career has been spent in an oversight capacity. I find my independence to be sacrosanct, and one of the basic premises in our office is that we don't take sides," said Mr. Brunetta.

"I'm neither a lobbyist for suppliers, nor an apologist for (government) departments."

Following an investigation, the ombudsman provides a report to the minister and deputy minister of the department involved, as well as the Public Works minister.

When asked what powers his department has to enforce the results of its investigations, Mr. Brunetta said he "takes it up with the deputy minister" if there is a reluctance or delay in implementing his recommendations.

So far, he added, it hasn't been an issue.

Outreach and increasing the profile of the ombudsman's office is among Mr. Brunetta's priorities for his five-year term, which began at the start of 2011. A survey at a government supplier trade show found only six per cent of attendees had heard of the ombudsman's office.

Mr. Brunetta said also wants to simplify the procurement process, especially for smaller solicitations. Layers of rules have been added to the procurement process to protect taxpayers, resulting in a $25,000 contract being just as complex as a $250,000 contract, he said.

"It seems ludicrous that you would have to invest as much time for a small contract as a large contract," he said.

Organizations: Canadian International Trade Tribunal, Office of the Procurement Ombudsman, Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.During Public Works

Geographic location: Ottawa

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