Changing how the broader public sector buys goods and services is critical for supporting Ontario businesses, creating jobs and encouraging innovation, Treasury Board President Prabmeet Sarkaria says.

“This is truly an important conversation,” the Brampton South MPP told an audience of founders, municipal leaders and public-sector executives at the Communitech Hub yesterday.

Sarkaria was in Kitchener to launch a series of consultations about government procurement and Supply Ontario, a new provincial agency.

Supply Ontario has been building out its operations since it was first announced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020. Its purpose is to centralize the procurement of goods and services by the broader public sector, which includes the Ontario government, hospitals, schools, universities, colleges and other publicly funded provincial organizations.

The goal is to save money, ensure the availability of critical goods, and support job creation, economic growth and innovation by purchasing more products and services from Ontario businesses.

“Ontario as a province procures close to $30 billion every single year,” Sarkaria said. “So, there is significant opportunity in the centralization of (broader public sector procurement).”

Canadian businesses – especially small and medium-sized companies – have long complained about government procurement processes that make it difficult for them to sell goods and services to public-sector entities.

Not only do the barriers hurt individual companies, they say, it also deprives citizens and those who provide public services – such as health-care workers – of some of the most innovative products available.

While many other countries support their companies by being the first buyers of their products, Canadian business leaders say it’s often easier to sell their goods to international buyers than to governments at home.

Communitech has lobbied all levels of government on the issue. It has also led a number of initiatives designed to connect Canadian tech companies with public-sector entities to overcome procurement barriers and to use Canadian innovation to solve common challenges in health care and other sectors.

At the federal level, Communitech is working with the Coordinated Accessible National Health Network (CAN Health) to implement an “integrated-markets” strategy that brings hospital and tech leaders together to get more innovative products into hospitals and health-care facilities.

At yesterday’s event, Communitech CEO and President Chris Albinson praised Sarkaria and the provincial government for prioritizing the procurement issue and for establishing Supply Ontario.

He noted that provincial assistance helped Waterloo medtech company Intellijoint secure a study of its well-established hip-replacement technology at Grand River Hospital last year.

Albinson also asked on behalf of tech founders for more detail on how the government planned to improve procurement access.

“That’s probably one of the most critical parts of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Sarkaria replied. “I think first and foremost we are listening, we’re adapting, and I think there’s still a long runway for us to continue to build upon that.”

Both he and Jamie Wallace, the new CEO of Supply Ontario, said the provincial government has already made significant headway.

They pointed to the government’s Building Ontario Businesses Initiative (BOBI), which was introduced in March 2022 and requires public-sector entities to give Ontario businesses preference in procurements under a specified threshold amount.

Wallace also said that the consultations to be carried out over the next few months will seek input from business leaders and others.

“How can we make the system better?” he said. “How can we land at a place where, as a matter of course, Ontario companies go to the front of the line and they get a shot – a very fair, transparent, competitive shot – to procure?” 

Sarkaria described the task of changing procurement rules and culture as one of the “largest transformations” within provincial government in some time.

“We’ve done some incredible work already,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces and we’re bringing them together. And having that central agency (Supply Ontario), and having someone to lead that central agency and bring everyone together, is a significant piece of the puzzle.”