Following yesterday's discussion (on Pedro's blog and here) on the first part of reg.22 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR2015), we are bound to continue the assessment of the transposition of the rules of Article 22 of Directive 2014/24 as electronic communications are concerned (Pedro's further views are available here). I will pick up on the issue of oral communications, which Pedro discussed extensively yesterday and on which he raised some important issues concerning equality, non-discrimination and traceability of the communication. He also mentioned in passing the difficulties derived from language barriers to communication (oral or otherwise), which are of course the elephant in the room.
Reg.22(8) to (10) PCR2015 deals with the novelty of an (express) authorisation to carry on oral communications. Reg.22(8) establishes the authorisation, which covers communications other than those concerning the essential elements of a procurement procedure, provided that the content of the oral communication is documented to a sufficient degree. Reg.22(9) then determines what is not an essential element of the procedure, or rectius, indicates that the essential elements of a procurement procedure include the procurement documents, requests to participate, confirmations of interest and tenders. Reg.22(10) also makes the record-creation and record-keeping requirements more specific by stressing that oral communications with tenderers which could have a substantial impact on the content and assessment of the tenders shall be documented to a sufficient extent and by appropriate means, such as written or audio records or summaries of the main elements of the communication.
Looking at the provisions as a whole, I struggle to see how oral communications can actually be used properly. There are certain things that should not be done orally, such as providing clarification on the tender documents or requirements, or accepting clarifications on the documents or tenders submitted by bidders. Equally, it is hard to see how negotiation can be carried out orally when, under reg.22(9) PCR2015, the tenders themselves are an essential element of the procedure on which oral communications are not allowed. Of course, this does not square with the rule in reg.22(10) PCR2015, which aims to set a minimum threshold (or expectation) of record-creation when negotiations are conducted if they could have a substantial impact on the content and assessment of the tenders. All in all, I find this set of rules very confusing and internally contradictory, and I would be £0.05 to any takers that there will be significant litigation in the near future--that is, if contracting authorities dare to use oral communications to any significant degree.
Use of tools and devices not generally available
Reg.22(13) to (15) deal with the issue of means of electronic communication not generally available and builds an exception to the general rule established by reg.22(2) PCR2015. In order to allow contracting authorities to require the use of tools and devices which are not generally available, the regulation demands that that the contracting authorities offer suitable alternative means of access. These are then further specified in reg.22(14), which offers three alternative ways of ensuring alternative means of access: (a) offer unrestricted and full direct access free of charge by electronic means to the tools and devices concerned from the date of publication of the call for competition or from the date when the invitation to confirm interest is sent [in which case the further rules of reg.22(15) need to be respected]; (b) ensure that tenderers having no access to the tools and devices concerned, or no possibility of obtaining them within the relevant time limits, provided that the lack of access is not attributable to the tenderer concerned, may access the procurement procedure through the use of provisional tokens made available free of charge online; or (c) support an alternative channel for electronic submission of tenders.
Given that the last option is the only one likely not to impose a cost on the contracting authority and given that it avoids having to enter into the licences and authorisations that one would expect under options (a) and (b), my view is that most contracting authorities that insist on the use of means of communication not generally available will also end up supporting an alternative channel for electronic submission of tenders. This creates the same difficulties that we witnessed in the past (only?) regarding technical specifications set according to standards and the mandatory requirement to accept functionally equivalent solutions. Moreover, this creates significant issues of justification of the use of not generally available means of communication. If the alternative channels (supported or otherwise) work, what is the reason not to use them? Consequently, this is another area where the set of rules does not seem to make much internal sense and the availability of funds to sponsor use of not generally available means of communication (or its lack) may end up deactivating the provision in any case.
Technical requirements, security requirements and electronic signatures
Reg.22(16) to (21) set out rather precise requirements concerning the technical and security-related features of the electronic means of communication to be used, as well as specific rules concerning the use of electronic signatures. To be honest, the technicalities may create issues that I fail to see, but these requirements seem relatively uncomplicated to me. It is worth stressing that in determining the security level applicable to the electronic communications, contracting authorities are required to consider the need for proportionality between the expected benefits of any particular security requirements and the costs, burdens and obligations which those requirements may impose on economic operators. This seems like a reasonable requirement but, once more, effectively putting it in practice may be complicated, particularly if judicial review of that type of decision is based on a formal assessment of the contracting authority's decision.