Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Why IT vendors?

During my Public Servant-in-Residence term at Carleton University, I’ll be working with Prof. Amanda Clarke as part of her larger research project on Trustworthy Digital Government. I’ll be studying the role and influence of information technology (IT) vendors in the public sector – the companies that provide software, technology equipment, cloud infrastructure, and professional services to governments.

Why study IT vendors?

  • The Government of Canada spends more than $6.8 billion dollars each year on IT – more than the per-year cost of the new Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan. A significant portion of this is spent on external IT vendors (including IT providers, management consultants, and temporary help agencies). Spending this money well is good public service stewardship.

  • A lack of digital expertise in the public sector means that it can be a challenge to manage these external vendors and contractors. We have a long history of public sector IT failures in Canada (across governments and jurisdictions), and understanding the relationship between vendors and how they are managed by public sector leadership could help reduce the likelihood of future failures.

  • As more and more public services are accessed through digital means, IT vendors often become the interface between the public and the government services we depend on. This has important implications for public trust and accountability. Once IT vendors become the doorway to public sector services, they can also be hard to dislodge or remove because of vendor lock-in dynamics.

Studying IT vendors is also an interesting way of looking at the career path of technology-focused public servants (a category I count myself in!). There are a lot of benefits that come from cross-pollination between the private and public sectors – people moving back and forth and learning from best practices and cutting-edge approaches in both sectors. But there are also potential risks related to lobbying and corporate influence from the “revolving door” effect.

I find IT vendors particularly compelling because procuring their services is an area of government I’m familiar with. During my time in the public service I’ve worked (in a policy role) on procurements for professional services providers, for strategic advice, and for cloud infrastructure and software-as-a-service tools. There are areas of government procurement that are larger, on a financial basis – defence and security materiel, or real property, for example – but information technology is the field I know best.

There’s some great writing on IT vendors (including management consultants that provide IT services) from a number of authors. Bianca Wiley in particular writes excellent pieces on the tension between public sector use of IT companies and public accountability. Smaller-scale Canadian tech firms have written about how hard it is to navigate Government of Canada procurement processes. Outside of Canada, Prof. Andrew Sturdy has written about the “management consultancy effect” (or “demand inflation”) and Prof. Mariana Mazzucato writes frequently about public sector dependency on consulting companies. Part of the challenge of examining IT vendors and their roles in a Canadian context is the wide range of activities (IT-focused and not) that can be performed by the same large-scale companies.

As an initial step in my research work, I’m looking forward to analyzing publicly available contracting data to explore this field in more detail. (Who are the major players? What do trends look like year-over-year? Did COVID change IT procurement spending patterns?) This is something that friends at Ottawa Civic Tech and I had dug into several years ago as a volunteer civic tech project. You can see our original analysis here – I’m looking forward to diving into this data with a bit more focus (and, er, academic rigour) than I could contribute as a volunteer weekend project.

IT services and software play a large and under-examined role in how governments deliver services to the public. Given the role that IT vendors frequently play in designing, delivering, and operating these services, I think there’s a lot of value in examining the sector in more detail. I’m really looking forward to it.

If you have thoughts or suggestions about things I should look at or people I should talk to, I’d love to hear them! You can reach me during my Public Servant-in-Residence term by sending me an email, or (as usual!) sending me a message on Twitter. Thanks so much!