Mr. Christian Henrard is project manager of e-Procurement, a new Belgian Federal Service. We asked this practitioner with an eclectic background, his views on innovation in public services.
Christian Henrard: To me, the public sector is innovative the moment it puts into place teams, who are responsible in the various fields of administrative management, to develop and implement appropriate management tools. These tools must now make use of modern technologies to the maximum and in the most optimal way and be developed in such a way that they are useable directly at all levels of authority, with a possible customisation that must be minimal.
IISA: Knowing that the public sector is reticent to change, is there a particular time to solicit the innovation?
C.H.: Not that I know of. Also, we cannot impose on potential users the tools that we have developed. We are therefore attempting to put into place ways to motivate these users in such a way as to “force their hand”; but before attaining a significant use of the online tool, this requires – in our particular case certainly – waiting up to 2 years.
IISA: The setting up of the Federal Service e-Procurement has been relatively recent. Can you describe, in a few lines, the factors that led the Belgian government to this innovation? What obstacles have been encountered?
C.H.:Our service exists under its present form since January 2005, but we began to prepare and implement the first developments within the Defence department in early 2000. We then migrated towards another agency because Defence no longer wished to support these activities which were not, of course, part of its core business.
It should be clearly understood that the process depends on a very long and complicated procedure, certainly in the phase of defining needs and working methods. Once this phase was completed, we defined and developed the first module which was JEPP. Success was not immediate and we had to pass by a very long phase of adaptation, which was then followed by a consolidation phase that started giving results in 2005. It was only then that we began to finalise other applications defined in the global e-Procurement process.
For all applications and tools slightly modified within these modules, the greatest difficulties encountered were the limitation of technologies and a very great resistance to change encountered both among civil servants and enterprises.
IISA: Your service is innovative in what areas? What are the essential contributions of this initiative?
C.H.:Via the tools that we put in place, we attempt to simplify the work of each actor involved in public markets. We have succeeded in shortening deadlines for making Info available in its simplest expression, notably by putting all official documents to be disseminated directly to those who must be informed, online practically instantaneously.
In this way, we have abolished postal delays and other handling; also the information is available during a much longer period of time and the use of intermediaries has become superfluous.
In addition, our applications are not just the publication pure and simple of information, but we also manage and make use of all useable data directly by exit systems so as to avoid a maximum of redundant introductions and, in this way, lessen the risks of errors. The applications likewise intercommunicate; in this way e-Tendering may be activated from e-Notification.
IISA: After a month of operation, what are the first results? What are the first snags?
C.H.: e-Procurement has been making modules available for 4 good years now (even longer). The e-Tendering application has been operational since 2006. e-Notification has been operational since June 2008, but is the follow up to JEPP. We also have an e-Catalogue which is available but is in a test phase and must be developed much more fully.
The results are that with regard to notices published, we publish 97% of all that is published in Belgium and this percentage should increase further to attain 100% by early 2010. We have been joined by most of the major public agencies, the others operate with us via an automatic data exchange system that is ever developing, too.
We have also taken note that the e-Tendering application has slowly begun to have some success among civil servants, but businesses still have difficulties introducing their offers electronically.
IISA: From your point of view, what are the perspectives that this new service opens in terms of efficiency for public administration and facility for the user (whether an ordinary user, a business or a civil servant)?
C.H.: From the point of view of perspectives, all of our applications are integrated, in such a way that we provide a unique, as complete as possible, access platform for civil servants. For businesses, we wish to become the unique national point of access to public market information.
The anonymous user may use the applications as long as the information consulted remains “open”. He/she may then, in one way or another, set up an account.
For the civil servant, we bring visibility, management tools, optimalisation of deadlines, security, transparency and simplification.
For businesses: facility and rapidity of access, plus a great visibility, a multitude of tools, the optimalisation of deadlines, simplification, security of transfers and data management.
IISA: According to you, will your new service contribute to more transparency in public markets and how?
C.H.: Our tools are designed so as to be able to garner a multitude of information and to disseminate it, or make it available for security or control bodies. Their utilisation is just a question of will.
For example we have made available in the e-Notification application, pre-approval systems of files before publication, forums of questions/responses, the possibility of publishing all necessary documents online and instantaneously. There is the possibility for each role player to set up a personal work space, storage and consultation.
We shall continue to improve visibility and possibilities of consulting files (those that can be seen) in e-Tendering.
We are also at work developing an even better performing electronic catalogue management application that can operate from the definition of the catalogue, independently from its complexity, to the announcement of materials or services received. For all of our applications, we study the possibility of communicating directly with budgetary management institutions or other management bodies, with a view to carrying out information transfers at all phases of the purchase file where this kind of information exchange is necessary.
Lastly, we have set up a website (www.publicprocurement.be) which is directly linked to most existing electronic tools and that also contains a legislation section as well as user assistance.
Christian Henrard was receiving officer for equipment and projects within the Belgian army, before returning to the civilian life and join the Government Procurement Division of the federal government. He is now project leader and manager of the e-Procurement Federal Service.