UPDATE - The First and Possibly Last ITQ Committee Walkabout: Liveblogging Government Operations but not, as it turns out, Procedure and House Affairs

Yes, it’s come to this.

Unable to choose between the two definitely-maybe-livebloggable meetings scheduled for this morning, ITQ will attempt to give you the highlights from both Government Operations, which continues to investigate the federal procurement process, and Procedure and House Affairs, which will be in camera for the first portion of the meeting to work on a draft report on webcasting the House of Commons but then goes public for committee business.

I’ll be honest with y’all – I’m not sure how well this will work, so it’s distinctly possible that the plan may change in midliveblog, but that’s what makes these things interesting, right?

10:47:02 AM
I should probably *also* warn you that I’ll probably miss the very beginning of Government Ops, since I’m currently idling in the (very, very chilly) hall outside the room where Procedure and House Affairs will very soon be immersed in a top secret, closed door meeting on … webcasting the House and House committees. I always wonder why no comittees are ever bold enough to discuss draft reports in public — I bet it would be fascinating to watch the consensus – or lack thereof – unfold. Anyway, I’m going to try to get someone at *this* meeting to tell me how long they’ll likely be in camera, and then I’ll head up to Government Ops. (I just don’t want anyone out there to think ITQ is shirking her duties. She’s no shirker!)

11:00:47 AM
Well, that makes life easier: one of the MPs on the committee has very kindly offered to drop me an email when they go out of camera, which I’m fairly sure is not, in fact, the correct term. Anyway, secure in the knowledge that no procedural or house business-related excitement will be going on without me, I’m now upstairs at Government Ops, where I have joined a surprisingly hearty contingent of fellow reporters at the media table. Honestly, I didn’t think there’d be more than a few of us here. Maybe this will be more exciting than I thought.
11:06:14 AM
And we’re on — the topic du jour, incidentally, is procurement policies; specifically, the effect on small and medium-sized enterprises.

First up: various officials from Public Works and Government Services – Lillian St. Pierre, Dawn Roth Wilson, Norman Masse – who apparently wanted to appear first last time, but weren’t allowed to do so. No, I have no idea what that’s about.

11:17:20 AM
Wow, that was annoying: somehow, I managed to overwrite my last two updates; luckily for y’all, we’re still suffering through the opening statement from the PWGSCites – now up, Norman Masse, who is midway through an overview of the slide deck that committee members are listlessly leafing through. So far, the theme has been “Yay, MERX!”

11:22:22 AM
I think Rob Anders may be taking pictures of the witnesses with his BlackBerry, y’all. Did I mention he’s also wearing an undershirt under a blazer with a very prominent square white *something* in the pocket? I’d say it was a hanky, but it looks too bulky. Anyway, he and Jacques Gourde occasionally whisper behind their hands, and both seem to have largely lost interest in the presentation — not that I can blame them, because honestly, it is painfully boring. Martha Hall Findlay seems to be trying to make time speed up with the power of her mind and laser-like gaze. Good luck, MHF.

11:27:51 AM
Okay, so my secret inside source at Procedure informs me that the whole session will be in camera, which means that I won’t eventually be sprung from this meeting after all. I hate it when they whimsically decide to change the agenda like that. Grr!

I should note that there are actually seven witnesses at the table at the moment, which seems like a lot. The one who is up right now, whose nameplate I can’t see, as usual, since we’re behind the witnesses, facing the chair, is going on and on about procurement, unsurprisingly. Gilles Gauthier. That’s his name.

11:34:45 AM
Derek Lee was paying attention — he noted that the last witness used the term “small and minority business”, which is a new one for the committee; he asks what it means, and Gauthier hems and haws a little — basically, a program designed for a minority group, like Canada has for aboriginal people.

11:35:51 AM
Finally, a non-departmental witness — not that there’s anything wrong with that — BIFMA, the association that represents business furniture, and which has “serious concerns” about a recent RPF. Public Works, he suggests, has moved from inclusion to exclusion, which means that competition for the coveted bureaucratic office chair market has been reduced. Conflict! Hurray!

11:39:29 AM
Procurement in office furniture, you’ll be interested to know, is *not* spread out around the year, but clusters around the end of the fourth quarter, otherwise known as the Use It Or Lose It March Madness.

11:40:45 AM
There is a Government Furniture Advisory Committe, which includes eight industry members as well as civil servants being punished for longtime passive aggressive insubordination, or so ITQ would assume.

Also, calling it GOFAC makes it sound so much more exciting than using the formal name.

I have to say, tho, that Office Furniture Guy is tearing a strip off Public Works, despite its increasingly uncomfortable presence at the table right beside him. He really thinks that the changes to the process will mean lengthy delays, higher costs, and not nearly enough comfy chairs for public servants.

11:45:57 AM
And – questions! First up, MHF, who notes that as a lawyer, she once had the dubious fortune of working on government RFPs, so she can sympathize – “it doesn’t sound like it’s getting much better,” she notes. After congratulating the department on improving its performance on transparency, as reported by the Information Commissioner last week, but wants to know more about non-competitive bids. Has there been an increase? Slightly, according to Masse – but it’s been fairly stable.

11:49:28 AM
As MHF carefully segues to the stimulus package, and the “blank cheque” that her party is about to give the government, and wonders if Public Works can assure her that the process will be fair and efficient, and effective. St. Pierre assures her that it will – apparently, the committee had a presentation on this very issue last week – Rob Anders keeps nodding off, although in fairness, it appears that Gourde – who was keeping him occupied with the chatter, you’ll recall – has also fallen asleep.

Wait, there; he just opened his eyes. Go, parliamentary democracy!

Anyway, while that psychodrama has been unfolding, MHF has been doing her best to tie the stimulus package to ongoing procurement challenges, with mixed success – mostly because these officials are fairly well-versed at not inadvertantly veering into the political.

11:57:13 AM
Diane Bourgeois is rather cranky with Masse – PWGSC guy if you’ve forgotten, and I wouldn’t blame you if you had – and grills him on whether the government respects rulings by the Canadian Internal Trade Tribunal; he assures her that they do adhere to the courts, except when they don’t. in some cases, the government would rather negotiate an agreement with the jilted bidder/successful applicant than go back to square one with a project already in progress. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Moving on, Bourgeois wonders about “grouping contracts”, and – wow, she’s very passionate about this issue, isn’t she? She demands to know whether there is a policy to do so, and St Pierre admits she doesn’t know. Pounce! If that’s the case, Bourgeois demands, why has the number of suppliers dropped from over forty to just five? Furniture suppliers, that is.

12:04:21 PM
St. Pierre is doing her best to assure Bourgeois that the department hasn’t limited the number of potential suppliers — and – wait, why is one of the Conservatives – Chris Warkentin, to be precise – suddenly asking questions? I guess it’s his turn.

Anyway, he wants to clarify how many suppliers there are – five, as Office Furniture Guy – let’s call him BIFMA – claimed earlier, or ten, as the department states. The answer, it turns out, is ten – five regular, five aboriginal suppliers. Warkentin confronts BIFMA with this contradiction, and he admits that the department’s numbers are right. There’s some discussion over whether these standing offers are similar in terms, and Warkentin admits that he’s confused. Probably because this is *ridiculously* confusing, but that’s just ITQ’s assessment.

Warkentin wonders if there is any risk to the supply of these products as a result of the drop in suppl*iers*, and if so, what’s being done about it. Is the government creating “mini monopolies”?

12:12:01 PM
Okay, time for one of those occasional ITQ Public Service Announcements For Committee Witnesses:

Unlike the House of Commons, your remarks don’t have to be directed to the Speaker – or, in this case, the chair. You can answer members’ questions directly. In fact, when you don’t – when you interrupt an MP, for instance, to address the chair – it actually comes across as, well, rude.

12:17:03 PM
Speaking of the chair, Derek Lee just brought the Japanese military historical references, y’all; he seems to have heard just about enough from Public Works – not even the Japanese imperial army could have obliterated the supply chain to the extent that this department has done in reducing the number of suppliers from 40 to five. He lectures the witnesses about the “gorilla in the room” – is it a gorilla? I always thought it was an elephant – as the witnesses – except BIFMA – avoid eye contact. One of those erstwhile no-longer-suppliers, Lee notes, is in his riding; that may well be the case for other members at the table as well. Anyway, he wants answers, and at the moment, he’s not remotely close to being satisfied.

12:20:33 PM
With that out of the way, Pat Martin takes the floor and pretty much gives a rousing “This” to Lee’s intervention; he then goes off on a speech of his own about buying Canadian, and points to a recent decision to eschew a military supplier in *his* riding in favour of a German company.

Martin is clearly frustrated by the Public Worksians’ wiliness; the chair clearly sympathizes, but – well, there’s nothing any of them can really do, is there?

12:27:49 PM
Dan McTeague is up for the Liberals this time around, and he wants to know more about how the proposals were developed, particularly as far as international trade agreements; Gauthier points out that the minister has raised this, and agrees that they have to make sure that Canadian suppliers have the same rights as American companies when it comes to bidding on US contracts.

McTeague then asks BIFMA for more details on the recent master standing offer RFP that has so disturbed him; apparently, many potential bidders just weren’t able to complete the form. Others were penalized for typos – really? – and there were additional costs for testing and other pre-bid prep.

12:33:01 PM
Over to the Bloc Quebecois, and Jean Yves Roy, who wants to more details on the number of SMEs that received contracts through Public Works over the last three years. Isn’t that a really, really technical question? St. Pierre reminds him that you *also* have to subtract the amount that went to foreign suppliers, which seems to satisfy Roy for now; he promptly goes back to the notion of grouping contracts.

Jacques Gourde, incidentally, appears to have developed the ability to go from nearly-nap mode to awake, alert and poised in state of catlike readiness mode almost instantaneously when it’s time for the Bloc Quebecois round.

12:39:41 PM
Cheryl Gallant gets the next government slot, and somehow manages to work in a reference to the sponsorship scandal – which she refers to as AdScam, of course – and the post-Gomerty accountability reforms – before sort of drifting off into a general harangue of Public Works, and how it abruptly ended contracts with a number of military suppliers when the government moved to the new master standing offer system.

12:43:11 PM
There better be a point to this long, rambling anecdote about some supplier in her riding who didn’t think to check all the MERX listings and missed the chance to bid on a master standing order.

Sigh. There wasn’t. At least, not much of one – she’s really more interested in lecturing the department than asking questions, I think. Oh, the chair noticed as well, mostly because she ran out of time, but he gives St. Pierre the chance to reply anyway – not that she says all that much new or different, although she does point out that MERX allows users to set up a bid alert system that, in theory, would have given Gallant’s luckless supplier a heads up.

12:48:53 PM
MHF wants to hear more about the pros and cons of bundling, particuarly as it effects SMEs, and one of the officials – Roth-Wilson, it turns out, which means I wrongly attributed his name to that poor woman sitting beside St. Pierre – does his best to explain.

12:53:44 PM
Jacques Gourde! Aw, unless he’s splitting his time,it looks like Rob Anders may not get the chance to question the witness. Anyway, Gourde wonders whether American companies use MERX to solicit bids, and what good it does, in general, economically speaking. Think fast, PWGSC! The survival of your precious database may depend on your answer! Oh, fine, no it won’t. Anyway Sainte Pierre – assures him that it does, indeed, benefit the Canadian economy.

Also, it turns out that a sentence that begins with the words “When it comes to office furniture” have an astonishing ability to make one reflexively tune out anything further. Or maybe that’s just ITQ. Don’t worry, she makes a valiant effort to overcome her primitive lizard brain.

1:00:02 PM
And – hey, that’s it, apparently: the chair thanks the witnesses, who start to pack up their respective binders and decks.

1:02:11 PM
Just when we thought we were out, Rob Anders draws us back in with what appears to be a familiar – at least to the chair – complaint about the timing of the steering committee; Lee reminds how it absolutely, positively can’t go ahead without him. He really is the heart of this committee, I guess.

And with that – yes, we’re adjourned. I’m sorry I didn’t get to try my hand at two committees, but at least this way, I didn’t have to leave you hanging on the furtive, peril-fraught world of furniture procurement, so that’s alright.