COLUMN: Why is government so expensive?

SOUTH DUNDAS — Why has the cost of government procurement become so expensive? The more apt question to ask is when has government procurement not been expensive? Government is suppose to take the role of doing the things we, as individuals, cannot do for ourselves. A single person cannot build and maintain a road, therefore that person pays taxes to support a road system, as does everyone else in the region, and the government builds and maintains that road.

The problem is, there is no restraint when it comes to government spending, no reality check on what the real cost of items are. We’re not talking about $300 hammers and $500 toilet seats. Nor is there the assumption of anything illegal being done. Just a lack of oversight, a lack of common sense, and a lack of reality when it comes to purchasing good and services by government, at all levels.

An example is in communications. The United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry announced that they will be launching their new web site starting in June. A web site that cost over $58,000. Don’t worry though, the county did not pay for it, they got a provincial grant to pay for it. You the taxpayer, well you paid for it either way.

What does $58,000 buy? A web site that has a business directory, since no one has ever used Google, YellowPages.ca, or Canada411, to look up businesses before. The site will have maps, again, no one knows about Google, or Bing, or Yahoo, or MapQuest. It also has a listing of commercial and industrial properties for sale in SD&G. MLS.ca has been around for 15-plus years, but let’s reinvent the wheel on this one shall we? Finally, it has some “regional support tools”. The term sounds like consultant-speak for a bunch of items that a “knowledgeable” consultant told them they needed but no user will actually visit on the web site.

To top it all off, the site is was built on a programming platform called Drupal. To stay as non-technical as possible, understand that Drupal is a bunch of web site software that takes programming code and makes it look good for the public. Those that put the content into the site do not have to learn the geek stuff. Just put the pictures and text in, and presto you have a web site. Here’s the catch, Drupal is free. Just like WordPress, Joomla, and other web software. What you do pay for is the time for the web developer to customize the free software, to do what is needed.

Does the county web site really need things like business directories and maps and property listings? No. Why should a private business owner, who pays taxes, help the county promote their business, and their competition?

The problem is that the procurement process is flawed from the top down. Consultants push needless features like car salespeople, with sales pitches such as, “well this is what they are doing”. “They” being the consultant’s previous client who was sold the same bill of goods by that consultant. Once the requirements are set, Request for Proposals are typically crafted-by, or based-on, the consultants list and only a certain number of contractors may meet the requirements. Those certain contractors are largely known to said consultant. As the agency has set a top number for their budget, surprisingly most, if not all, of the bids are right in the same ballpark. There is nothing illegal about these practices, but it does nothing but drive up the price considerably. But a provincial grant is paying for this, so who cares? Right?

To distill this back to the county level. The Province of Ontario got a piece of free software for the county, and paid $58,000 to have  it customized with features that duplicate what private enterprise has already established in the market. That contract was awarded to a company in Guelph, so that overspending didn’t even trickle down into the local economy.

If the reader thinks this is a one-off example, think again. It happens in every municipality, province, and even at the federal level. From paying over $7,400 for “refreshing” free web site software in South Dundas, to paying image consultants in Ottawa for branding Cornwall with wordy slogans that people remember because it sounds foolish, not inspiring.

Procurement at every level needs to be reformed. The first step, kick out the consultants. Second, stick to what is needed and do not duplicate what private enterprise has already done in the market. At no time should tax dollars be spent to create bureaucracy that competes with the taxpayer. Third, stick to the basics, and shop around. There is no reason why government cannot haggle over the price of everything. In private business, this happens all the time. It keeps prices low. Lastly, and most importantly, all purchases should be reviewed, and if something is wildly expensive, get a second opinion, or just don’t spend our money.

Government, and the staff that work for it, no matter what level, need to remember who pays the bills. It is the taxpayer.

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