By June 2017, the Public Engagement Team at the Privy Council Office (PCO) had received many questions from departments about digital engagement tools. The team began searching for these tools, only to find that while there were some great open source public engagement tools out there, none were immediately ready for Government of Canada (GC) use. The team began to ask…wouldn’t it be great if we could pay someone to modify these tools to meet accessibility and official language requirements, and then put them in a library for all departments to access?
Open Source Software
Software with its source code made available with a licence in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose
Source: GC Open First Whitepaper
Discussions continued and broadened to include public servants working not only in public engagement, but also in IT and open source in other departments. A vision started to emerge of a new way of working that would benefit not only federal colleagues, but freelance developers and small businesses as well. Could innovations in procurement facilitate these new ways of working? The team imagined that it could look like this:
Mohammed is a public servant who works in a non-IT branch that would like to build a prototype of a digital app to run an experiment. Chris recently procured a similar prototype for their department, but it is not licensed as open source and so they cannot share it with Mohammed. Wouldn’t it be great if Chris’ prototype was licensed as open source and stored in an open repository so that Mohammed could repurpose it?
Feria is a freelancer and a member of her local Civic Tech group. She regularly contributes a day here and there to government hackathons and projects but is not compensated for her contributions. Wouldn’t it be great if Feria could continue to share her valuable insights and be paid for doing so?
Val is an executive who would like to inject some fresh new thinking into her team. She is interested in bringing in some students to work on a prototype. Wouldn’t it be great if Val could procure the services of these students as and when her projects required and students could choose the work as and when their studies allowed?
To see if it was possible to make the above vision a reality, PCO joined forces with Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) and Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). Together, we launched the Government of Canada Developers’ Exchange (GC DevEx) in December 2017.
The GC DevEx is a website that connects GC teams with freelance developers and small businesses that are eligible to work in Canada. To foster experimentation and promote continuous learning through fast failures, developer services procured via GC DevEx are for short periods (aka technical sprints). The maximum contract value that can be offered via GC DevEx is $9,999 CAD, including GST.
The launch was able to happen in a matter of months, thanks primarily to the BC Developers’ Exchange (BCDevExchange) who made their code available for anyone to re-use. After copying their code, all that was needed to get GC DevEx up and running were some minor adjustments such as adding French screens, updating the user guide, and finding a server to host the site.
All work procured via GC DevEx is licensed as open source and made available to anyone via an online repository. In this way, the work is open by default, is never discarded, and can be repurposed. Successes and failures alike are shared. The lessons learned from failures can be used by others to prevent mistakes from being repeated. GitHub, which the BC Government had integrated into BCDevExchange, serves as the online repository for GC DevEx. It not only provides a place to store code or documents for free, but is also a collaboration space, similar to a wiki, where developers around the world can co-create. GitHub houses a Canada-ca organization—a playground of sorts in which GC teams can work together in the open. Anyone can discover code and join forces with others to co-create tools for open policy making and in support of GC programs and services.
Only a few weeks after launch, over 100 developers had signed up to be notified of opportunities, and many GC teams had expressed interest in posting opportunities. This suggested that GC DevEx had met a need. These feelings were further validated with the release of Budget 2018, which stated that:
Canadian companies have long asked the federal government to improve its relationship with suppliers – to make opportunities easier to find, simpler to navigate and faster to award, with less administrative burden.
GC DevEx works to achieve these improvements for procurement of open source code – a small corner of government procurement. However, we still face challenges.
Because GC DevEx follows a decentralized model, departments manage the code that they procure. Each team is accountable for the quality assurance of the product they receive. This could be challenging for teams of non-IT public servants who procure an open source app but do not have the expertise required to verify the quality and security of the code.
Secondly, the GC DevEx website is not in and of itself a procurement vehicle, but simply a layer on top of existing procurement policies and processes. All contracts awarded via opportunities on GC DevEx must, therefore, follow an existing procurement process. GC DevEx contracts are officially awarded via the sole source process due to the low maximum contract value. However, GC DevEx involves open bidding on opportunities and evaluation of proposals, which does not seem to be compatible with providing a sole source justification.
Finally, we recently learned that amongst the many existing GC procurement vehicles, there are some that are mandatory for IT procurement. At this time it is unclear if any of these are a perfect fit for the type of opportunities offered via GC DevEx.
To make the vision of working in new ways a reality, we will need to co-design with procurement specialists to adjust for the challenges that have surfaced. In the meantime, the GC DevEx experiment continues. Since the launch in December, two opportunities have been posted. Throughout this process, the team has been documenting progress openly on GitHub, learning, and adjusting. For example, we learned that problem definition was not clear in the first opportunity and so we adjusted by creating a space for GC employees to get help with problem definition before they post opportunities. We also continue to work closely with our colleagues in British Columbia to learn with them as the BC Developers’ Exchange evolves.
As we learn, the vision for GC DevEx grows. Developers tell us that the time it takes to pay suppliers prevents freelancers and small businesses from bidding on public sector contracts. Could a tool such as GC DevEx fix this? Would it be possible to pay developers automatically when their code is “pulled” on GitHub? Other jurisdictions are using “pay on pull” as a tool to remove barriers to working with government. Finally, would it be possible to shorten procurement time by automatically issuing a contract to winning proposals?
We have yet to answer these questions. But we hope you’ll join us as we continue to learn and experiment!
If you are a developer, we invite you to visit the GC DevEx website (https://gcdevexchange-carrefourproggc.org), sign up for notifications of opportunities or follow the @gcdevex Twitter account.
If you are part of a GC team, participate in this experiment by posting your opportunities.