Ottawa view: Argument can be made for patronage

This column, serving as Strategy's window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.first come elections. With them, come promises. Then come media reports of promises. Then come expectations, followed by new policy announcements, reports of...

This column, serving as Strategy’s window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.

first come elections. With them, come promises. Then come media reports of promises. Then come expectations, followed by new policy announcements, reports of broken promises, and, finally, disappointment and cynicism.

Vicious cycle

This vicious, circular dance, performed by politicians and journalists who relish their self-ordained status as unofficial opposition members, hurts both partners, and poisons the relationship between governors and the governed.

Take, for example, the recently announced Guidelines on Contracting for Communications, Public Opinion Research and Advertising.

Promised as part of the Liberals’ Red Book, largely in response to outrage (poll-verified, no doubt) expressed over millions of dollars going to Tory polling firms during the constitutional fiasco, the guidelines look like this:

- Departments must ensure that all commissioned contracts match requirements, policy interests of government as a whole.

- Contracted advertising and communications services must inform and explain government policies and programs.

- Polling services must: collect data that government needs to do its job; evaluate the effect of programs, and efforts to promote them; collect and inject views of Canadians into the policy progress.

- Work is to be contracted only when a clear need is established and less costly alternatives are unavailable. Departments are encouraged to work together.

Open basis

- All contracts must be awarded on an open, fair, competitive and transparent basis.

Exceptions are permitted when the dollar amount is under $30,000; when delay and/or the nature of work makes soliciting bids injurious to the public interest; when a given company is the only one capable of performing the contract.

- Selection criteria shall allow for ministerial judgment when two or more qualified bids are deemed to offer equivalent best value.

- No one firm shall receive an excessive share of government business.

- Products resulting from contracts will routinely be made available except under certain limited or specific circumstances.

- With openness and transparency in mind, departments are encouraged to make suppliers aware of contract opportunities. This will involve increased use of the Open Bidding Service (please see below.)

- Every departmental advertising and polling project must obtain a registration number from the department of Government Services; media buys cannot be made without this number.

Upon release, the national media roundly panned these guidelines as ineffectual, choosing to highlight the perceived (see, specifically, the bold passages) loopholes through which politics can enter into the contracting process.

The problem, as Jeffrey Simpson ably describes it in Spoils of Power, is that ‘Confined to the shade, illuminated only occasionally by shafts of common sense, the mere mention of patronage conjures an army of dark spirits that spread everywhere, angering clients, weakening patrons and disturbing the voting public.’

Considered corrupt

Many consider patronage to be corrupt politics, incompatible with good, efficient government, and unethical.

And yet, in spite of its perceived dirtiness, a compelling argument can, and obviously has, been made in favor of political involvement in contracting.

From a business perspective, for example, best value for money is often obtained by working with suppliers whose quality, reliability and loyalty are known commodities.

It can also be argued that expectation of favor is important both as an incentive for political participation, and for strengthening party discipline.

In a world in which compromise is king, these new guidelines allow for both extremes.

While it is naive to think that patronage will, or even should, be eliminated, it does appear that these new measures will make it more difficult to engage in the kind of vulgar excesses exhibited by the previous government.

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Anyone who has spent time trying to get business from the federal government knows that it is a long, arduous process.

Simply being aware of contracting opportunities by no means guarantees work.

It often results in a lot of effort, with no return.

However, in line with its new guidelines, the federal government has recently put communications services valued at more than $50,000 onto its Open Bidding Service (obs.)

The obs is ‘an electronic procurement information system that gives all Canadian entrepreneurs direct and equal access to federal government business opportunities.’

Given that government is in cost-recovery mode these days, there is a charge to gain access to the system.

For details, call 1-800-361-4637.

Nigel Beale is president of Nigel Beale and Associates, a communications firm, and operates the Ottawa offices of News Canada, a news distribution service. Reader feedback is encouraged and Beale can be contacted at (613) 563-3300 (phone) ; (613) 563-2245 (fax.)