In a recent paper entitled "Social Public Procurement: Corporate Responsibility Without Regulation", John Robinson Jr., a student at the University of Utah College of Law, 'explores the EU’s framework for achieving [...] social goals and suggests that the US
should undertake many of the same policies. In the US, public procurement accounts for over 10% of GDP.
Therefore, using the marketplace rather than regulation to achieve positive
change offers a powerful tool: the upside of social good without the downside of
increased regulatory burden' (emphasis added).
Even more specifically, the paper claims that 'EU’s position on CSR, specifically that expenditure of public funds provides a powerful mechanism with which to drive corporate responsibility. Essentially, this reflects a collective EU decision (sic) that market forces are superior (eg., more efficient) to regulation in terms of promoting socially responsible business practice' (emphasis added). However, the superiority or efficiency of the mechanism is not an issue that can simply be agreed upon or opted for, but an empirical question. And, difficult as it may be to measure, economic theory does not support the premise that exercising buyer power is a more efficient mechanism than (adequate) regulation when it comes to the pursuit of social (or any other) regulatory goals.
In my view, the whole argument in the paper and the final policy recommendation (as, more generally, the use of public procurement to pursue secondary considerations) is problematic because it does not duly take into account the short-term, static competitive distortions and the (implicit) higher costs of procurement based on non-economic considerations, nor the undesirable dynamic distortions that can be created by the public buyer. Readers may be bored already with my argument, but I cannot help stressing that using public buyer power to achieve regulatory goals is an inefficient strategy [for further discussion, see my Distortions of Competition Generated by the Public (Power) Buyer].
Nonetheless, Robinson completely ignores the fact that imposing regulatory requirements through the backdoor of public procurement decisions significantly muddles the working of the market. Such ommission is clear in the argument that 'Using their already-existent presence in the market, governments may encourage corporate social responsibility through favoring those corporations, goods, and services that produce better social outcomes. The EU terms this as socially responsible public procurement, and has actively engaged in SRPP for some time'. In passing, it is worth stressing that the CJEU has created some important limitations as to what can be done in terms of pursuing CSR objectives through procurement (see case C-368/10 and my comment, in Spanish, though).
In my view, the foundations of the logic behind the proposals to 'use' the market (ie buyer power) to achieve regulatory objectives (which Robinson borrows from McCrudden's 'Buying Social Justice') are essentially flawed. Remarkably, it can hardly be supported that 'Although not perfect, markets constitute the best method yet found for “optimizing the use and distribution of scarce resources.” Traditionally, society placed social justice and equality outside of the market, but within the sphere of government influence. However, the movement towards [socially responsible public procurement], particularly within Europe, signals a recombination of the two—integration of social justice into the marketplace'. In my view, such a recombination is simply not possible, as the preference for social (or other) regulatory requirements distorts the market mechanism and, consequently, there can be no guarantee that it can still optimize the use and distribution of scarce resources.
Contracting authorities are clearly in a position to decide what to buy and to require that the products or services they purchase or hire meet certain technical specifications that include environmental or social requirements. They will be able to do so as long as there is a market for such products or services. Equally, they are free to decide to what social or environmental projects they give preference and where the money should be spent. And, once they do that, they should aim to take full advantage of the undistorted market mechanism to maximise the value of their expenditure or investment to achieve those goals. However, they are in a very bad position to attempt to regulate the market through purchasing decisions, and they should refrain from doing so. Otherwise, they may see how their own efforts are in vain as a result of their unforeseen impact in the market.
The boundaries of what can and what cannot be done in terms of promoting social and environmental goals through procurement still require some further clarification (particularly in light of the novelties in the new public procurement directives), but it should come with some sound understanding of the economics underpinning procurement mechanisms. Bottom line: public procurement needs to take place in properly functioning markets and any (pseudo-regulatory) strategies that distort the market will be inefficient, however appealing it may seem to exploit buying power in the short term.