Public tender openings – A CCA achievement

One of my early duties in the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) office was to attend the construction tender openings on Wednesday afternoons at the federal Department of Public Works (DPW). The fact that they were “public” was the result of a lengthy CCA campaign designed to establish which bidder was in fact the lowest. One member told me that previously the competition was often in two stages: firstly, a firm had to be the lowest bidder and, secondly, it had to hold onto the contract by fighting off political pressures in favour of another firm or firms.

A check would be made with the Dominion Observatory to ascertain precisely when 15:00 o’clock occurred. Any tenders received after that would remain unopened. The secretary of the department opened the tender envelopes. He had failing eyesight and would stab at the envelopes with an opener. Then, with the aid of a magnifying glass, he would read out the tender amounts. Only the name of the “apparent lowest bidder” would be announced. However, in time I began to recognise the distinctive tender deposit cheques of many bidders. An important service of the CCA was to notify members of the tender results. These reports were sent out by mail but members who were currently bidding other projects would often telephone to determine their standing on the DPW project.

Although public tender openings had long been resisted, the government found that they were also in their own best interest. For example, if there was a question in the House of Commons about a contract award, the answer would be that tenders were opened publicly with a representative of the industry and any interested bidders present. That ended the discussion.

Public tender openings were not necessarily performed by other levels of government. In the Quebec election in 1960 Jean Lesage campaigned that “it was time for change”. One of the changes he advocated was that tenders be called on provincial projects and be opened publicly. Many did not take this election promise seriously but on the day after his election success, he requested the CCA to attend his government’s tender openings. He had been a federal cabinet minister and was familiar with the practice in Ottawa.

Previously contracts could be awarded without competition. A byproduct of tender calls was that some firms submitting the lowest bids seriously underestimated their costs. As a consequence, the Quebec Road Builders Association instituted a course for its members on estimating.

Ontario was a long-time hold-out against public tender openings. (Rumour had it, for example, that if a firm from outside of the province was lowest bidder on a road contract, the lowest Ontario-based bidder would be given the opportunity of meeting the price). However, a scandal arose about a provincial road contract in the Lakehead region. Soon afterwards there was a prominent picture in The Globe and Mail newspaper showing the minister of highways conducting a public tender opening on a departmental project!

Today, “transparency” has become a watchword and there are many alternatives to competitive lump sum tendering, but the CCA’s leadership in advocating in briefs and cabinet interviews public tender openings still has a widespread impact.

Policy statements – 4.3 Regional Federal Openings
CCA maintains that bids for publicly funded projects should be deposited and publicly opened in the region where the work is to be performed.