Some recent indicators of public procurement in the EU

The European Commission has published some indicators on the evolution of public procurement in the EU up to December 2014 (most recent available data). There are two sets of indicators worth having a look at.

Public Procurement Performance

First, the Commission (DG Grow) has published indicators on public procurement performance in the Member States, which provide a comparative view of the countries' adherence to 'good procurement' as measured by 6 simplified indicators. Or, in other words, indicators aimed to measure 'the extent to which purchasers obtain good value for money'.  The creation of a single 'quick-look' indicator seems appealing. However, some attention to the way in which the indicator is calculated may raise issues as to its usefulness.

Source: European Commission.

In that regard, it is worth mentioning that the Commission has created 6 discrete indicators: [1] One Bidder; [2] No Calls for Bids; [3] Aggregation; [4] Award Criteria; [5] Decision Speed; and [6] Reporting Quality (details available here). Interestingly, in order to construct the 'Overall Performance' indicator (used in the map above), the Commission uses a 'weighted average of all the performance indicators. Triple weight is given to most important indicators: One Bidder and No Calls for Bids.' Given this methodology, the Commission is careful to indicate that

Like all indicators, however, these indicators simplify reality. They are affected by country-specific factors such as the composition of procurement, the structure of the economies concerned, and the relationships between different tendering options, none of which are taken into account. Also, some aspects of public procurement are omitted entirely or covered only indirectly - for instance corruption, administrative burden and professionalism. Thus, although the Scoreboard provides very useful information, it gives only a partial view of EU countries' public procurement performance.

In my opinion, this is a valuable first step towards developing performance indicators in public procurement. However, the 'qualitative policy judg[e]ment on what is good practice' behind some of the criteria is questionable. For instance, the rationale behind criterion [3] Aggregation is that 'Buying in bulk often leads to better prices and also offers an opportunity to exchange know-how. While not every type of purchase can benefit from aggregation, excessively low aggregation levels mean that an opportunity is probably being missed. Aggregation measures the proportion of procedures with more than one public buyer.'

This is by no means clear, given the difficulty in assessing the net economic effects of procurement aggregation [see A Sanchez-Graells and I Herrera Anchustegui, 'Impact of Public Procurement Aggregation on Competition: Risks, Rationale and Justification for the Rules in Directive 2014/24', in R Fernandez & P Valcarcel (eds), Centralizacion de compras publicas (Madrid, Civitas, 2016) 129-163]. Moreover, the reasons that led the Commission to give a positive value of the indicator when Member States aggregate 10% or more of their procurement expenditure seems completely arbitrary.

Ultimately, the use of such indicator may push Member States towards excessive aggregation of demand (particularly through procurement centralisation, see discussion on the UK CCS' strategy below), which seems to be a policy drive of the European Commission that may well create excessive difficulties [particularly when cross-border collaboration is involved, as discussed in A Sanchez-Graells, 'Collaborative Cross-Border Procurement in the EU: Future or Utopia?'].

Therefore, great care needs to be exercised to avoid creating indicators that may trigger specific policy options with doubtful beneficial net effects.

evolution of public procurement markets

Second, the Commission has also published raw indicators of the volume of procurement subjected to the EU rules in 2014. This serves to provide a broad overview of the evolution of EU public procurement markets in recent years. 

There are two results I find interesting. At a general level, the 'estimate of total general government public procurement expenditure (TGGPPE), excluding utilities and defence, was 1,931.5 billion euros in 2014, 2.7 % higher than in 2013, continuing the increased trend of recent years'. However, there are great national disparities that still reflect the effects of the economic crisis, with 'countries like Spain, Italy or Cyprus ... with their TGGPPE the minimum in the last four years'.

And, at a country level, I find it remarkable that, overall, the UK publishes larger contracts than the EU average (see graph below). This issue is linked to the discussion on aggregation above because, '[t]he concentration of procurement in large notices is outstanding in the UK, particularly in the procurement of services, where the UK alone accounts for 84 % of the total value procured at EU level in awards of more than 100 million euros' (emphasis added).

 Source: European Commission. Graph represents the distribution of contract award notices in logarithmic scale in million Euros. The dashed-blue line represents EU distribution. 

Source: European Commission. Graph represents the distribution of contract award notices in logarithmic scale in million Euros. The dashed-blue line represents EU distribution. 

Qualitatively, it is worth stressing that this is, at least in large part, the immediate result of the enormous framework agreements for services contracts tendered by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) in recent years. However, this strategy has led to significant operative problems and the CCS is moving away from such large service frameworks, in favour of alternative procurement strategies

Also from a qualitative perspective, analysing this data would require to access details on whether these contracts are adequately split into lots, eg so as to ensure SME access to procurement markets in the UK. If not, this could be an indicator that UK markets are relatively more geared towards large suppliers than in the rest of the EU, which would be a worrying situation and definitely not in line with declared policy goals.

Therefore, once more, care needs to be exercised in the extrapolation of any policy implications derived from such high-level quantitative indicators.