Rather than use a pricey out-of-the-box solution, the city adopted a “Made in Mississauga” approach to digitize processes and lay the groundwork for more innovation.
Set on the shores of Lake Ontario, a short drive from Toronto, the City of Mississauga (the City) has a lot going for it: Canada’s busiest airport is here, there’s a thriving international food scene, and the City has been ranked one of the best places to live in the country.
But the City is always looking for ways to improve. In fact, if you work for the City, finding improvements is part of your job.
Brian Smith, Senior Buyer and eBidding lead for the City’s procurement department explains:
“The City’s goal is to have every single staff person submit at least one small improvement per year. These are all documented and the cost savings are tracked. A lot of times ideas come out of those small improvements that turn into bigger projects and initiatives.”
Smith’s team designed Mississauga’s internal procurement management platform to be simpler than the big govtech solutions, at a price tag well under $1 million. The City then brought on a cost-effective eBidding partner to digitize bidding, evaluation and contract management processes. Now, a new opportunity has come out of these efforts: The chance to bring everything together and help spearhead an end-to-end digital procurement solution.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with administrators in Mississauga to learn how the City’s commitment to efficiency helped reinvent the procurement process.
Internal efficiency comes first
About seven years ago, as eBidding was emerging as a new procurement solution, the City of Mississauga gave it a look. But they soon realized the main problem wasn’t the vendor management system. The problem was their internal process. Smith says:
“We started thinking, we don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We want to take care of things inside our own house before we start to worry what we’re doing with vendors.”
Managing procurement requests, revisions, and approvals in Mississauga was an incredibly manual process. Procurement solicitation documents get revised often before they get issued to bidders, but there was no easy version control or way to work collaboratively in the same file. After bids are received and evaluated, the approval process often requires five, six, ten … sometimes even fifteen signatures. Printing, signing and re-scanning a document that many times degraded the quality, and when signatures had to be expedited someone would have to actually drive paper approval forms to various stakeholders to be signed. On top of all this, there wasn’t a clear way to associate all the different components and files tied to a procurement request with each other.
In short, the process was due for an upgrade.
Smith and his team started looking for a solution:
“We wanted some kind of collaboration tool that could help us manage our documents, workflows, and approval process.”
They kicked off the procurement process, putting out an RFP. The usual suspects submitted proposals: IBM, SAP, and other massive ERP systems. These products were powerful, but they were incredibly complex, not necessarily designed for public procurement and carried high price tags. They also weren’t all that flexible. Says Smith:
“They wanted a lot of our money and wanted to give us systems that they claimed could do everything. It meant that we would be required to rethink the way that we worked — we would have to rewrite all our business processes and change the way we do things to fit the way those systems work.”
But one of the proposals that came in was different. Rather than provide an out-of-the-box solution, a software development firm posed an idea: Mississauga already used SharePoint. They could build a new system based on a tool that was already on city staffers’ computers. And it would cost about a half a million dollars, compared to the big firms’ $2 million-plus proposals.
Mississauga was faced with a choice we see many governments grapple with: build or buy. They chose to build. Says Smith:
“There’s this idea that, when you’re a government, you make or you buy. And the buying part is great — that’s a big part of what I do. But we have to make good decisions about being innovative, too. And sometimes it makes more sense to actually build something. That’s what we’ve done, because the other options were way too big and bulky for what we wanted them to do.”
Over the course of two years, Smith’s team worked to build Mississauga’s new procurement tool. (For details on how they did that, check out the Govlaunch podcast).
The resulting product, Mississauga’s Procurement Centre, launched in 2017 and brought every procurement step from the City’s existing workflow into one platform. Now, when a buyer creates a procurement record, all the required steps are housed within the record. People can work in shared document libraries at the same time. Approvers are notified when it’s their turn to authorize. All information, including how many bids came in and how they were evaluated, gets saved with everything else. Says Smith:
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not your big shiny system that you’d get from an ERP provider. It’s grassroots and does exactly what we need it to do, and it’s not overly complicated because of that.”
Joining the eBidding trend
Once Mississauga’s internal system had moved away from using paper, it was time to focus on the external vendor part of the procurement process.
By 2017, eBidding wasn’t new — many towns and cities were doing it. Smith‘s team put out another RFP for an eBidding vendor. Once again, many of the offers that came back were overly complex and expensive.
The bid that won came in from eSolutions, which offers a product called bids&tenders. This uses a vendor pay solution — essentially vendors pay a subscription fee to bid on procurement opportunities from any participating municipalities or organizations. Cities just have to pay a small fee for things like training and backups. (While Mississauga is a larger city, the low cost to cities makes bids&tenders a popular option among small and medium-sized local governments, too.)
Mississauga was targeting an April 2020 launch of eBidding. The timing was fortuitous. Says Smith:
“We were still receiving paper submissions up until the end of March of this year. But with COVID-19 we couldn’t receive paper-based bids anymore. So we went live with eBidding a little sooner than planned.”
The city turned on eBidding the third week of March, and received their first electronic bids on March 31. Now, all bidding processes are managed electronically.
Using bids&tenders isn’t groundbreaking — most communities near Mississauga, except Toronto, use it too. But Mississauga took a slightly different approach to the process — that is, they considered the process itself.
Rather than providing the City’s existing procurement instructions to eBidders, Smith and his team reimagined all the documentation that supports bidding, to make sure it speaks directly to doing it electronically. Some details that were previously spelled out in documentation could just be integrated into the eBidding tool, eliminating a lot of excess instructional info. Says Smith:
“eSolutions was impressed and has asked if our documents could be shared with their other clients so they can also benefit from the foundation we created.”
Turning innovation into opportunity
As Smith was helping scale up the eBidding process, he did demos of the City’s internal tool that he had designed. eSolutions saw an opportunity, says Smith:
“They really liked that a number of elements that are on the bids&tenders roadmap were already incorporated in our tool.”
Smith and his team are now excited to collaborate with eSolutions to bring the internal automated workflow and approvals of Mississauga’s in-house solution together with bids&tenders electronic bidding functionality. This would create a true end-to-end system for public procurement; something Smith says most procurement tools don’t have.
bids&tenders already releases regular updates to the product to respond to user needs. For Smith, sharing Mississauga’s process knowledge with eSolutions allows the City to be a part of the continuous improvement of this digital procurement solution:
“We’re looking to help them accelerate what they’re already planning to build. I’m going to share lessons learned and help streamline the build a little more.”
Ultimately the City’s experience will benefit other public sector organizations.
An ongoing quest for improvements
Whether or not Mississauga joins the ranks of other local governments who’ve productized their innovations, the City has reaped huge benefits from their procurement modernization: It’s saved time. It’s made things easier to track. And it’s saved money.
This drive to do things better is a core value throughout Mississauga’s government. Many local governments get stuck in the “this is how things have always been done” rut, but in Mississauga, they run a lean program that is always looking at ways to “cut the fat.”
How do they do that? Smith has a few tips:
1. Be willing to let go of the old ways and look for opportunities to do things differently.
2. Be very critical about your processes. Ask yourself, are they still relevant?
3. Fail small. Cities don’t like failing, but embracing an appetite for change and accepting small failures in the name of seeking improvement is the basis for innovation.
Ultimately, for Mississauga, it’s all about what comes next, says Smith:
“You can never really stand still. You always have to be looking at opportunities to improve. Even when we came up with the Procurement Centre and built it, we knew it was not going to be a forever solution. We’re always looking at what can we do next and what can we do better. For us, the next piece is looking at how we can integrate all the pieces we have into a single solution.”