City of Calgary fraud allegations and a simple open data solution

By DJ Kelly May 21, 2010

The process of transparency and accountability is one we often talk about – certainly some of the mayoralty candidates have put it at the top of their list of election issues – but rarely take steps to do much about. Often the idea boils down to “people need to vote to hold politicians accountable” or “our politicians need to work harder to hold administration to task”. But both of these solutions are simple-minded and are just putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

The fraud allegations unfolding at the City of Calgary should be surprising to no one. Our band-aid is not working on this gunshot wound.

I applaud the City for investigating better regulations to the procurement process, but even that will not be enough to heal the wound. It’s just enough to stop the bleeding.

Have you, as an owner of the City of Calgary corporation, ever read a single contract the company you are co-owner of has tendered? I’m guessing no. If you wanted to read one, who would you call? I’m guessing you have no idea. If you got through to someone to ask them about a contract, what are the odds they would be willing to send you a copy? I’m guessing slim to none.

If you co-owned any other business, would you stand for that kind of treatment by your staff and their policies?

I’m a big proponent of Open Data because of situations exactly like this. If we have ease of access to information (transparency), staff and elected officials will be less likely to try to take advantage of the hiding in the shadows and avoid potential fraudulent activities (accountability). You need one to have the other however.

Here’s my proposed solution to avoid this sort of harmful – or perceived harmful – activity in the future: make all City of Calgary contracts available online. All of them.

Not only does this kind of transparency lead to better accountability on both the City’s and public’s sides of the equation, but I also believe it can lead to more cost efficient services and better value as well.

If you, as a contractor, are considering bidding on a project, and you can visit the City’s website and see what other previously successful vendors bid on similar projects, you now have an idea as to what your potential competition might bid and what has resonance with the City. Arming vendors with this kind of knowledge increases the likelihood they will attempt to add value to their bid on the new project either by offering the service more efficiently (read: cheaper) or by adding benefit to their bid that may be attractive to the City in ways they had not previously considered (delivery schedules, quality, etc).

I know it’s often comfortable living in the shadows because when no one can see what you’re doing you don’t have to constantly be on your toes. I get that. But the benefits to opening up the data and being more transparent does not have to be a negative experience. Accountability often has more positive outcomes for the person being held to account than negative. It’s time we stop worrying about the negative, embrace the positive, and be willing to let the public help build a better City through accountablity.

Let’s start simple. Please post the contracts online.