A couple of papers on procurement and discretion


I am preparing a paper on discretion and competition under the EU public procurement rules for a workshop at Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford) in November. In looking for new ideas and making sure I cover the necessary background, I have been reading recent economics and political science papers on the topic.

After a few reads, I think I am starting to identify an emerging trend of support for both (i) expanded use of discretion and (ii) claims of positive effects of the exercise of that discretion on procurement outcomes. I think both issues are interesting and tricky, and have found the two papers below thought-provoking (even if not entirely convincing). I would recommend reading them if you are interested in this topic.

This is a political science paper aimed for a non-academic audience and it maps the discussions behind the choice on whether to promote or constrain discretion by procurement officers. It follows the US discussion and goes back to the arguments developed by Kelman in 1990. However, the paper largely ignores the ensuing discussion in the US where, primarily Schooner (2001, 2004), raised important issues around the oversight of the exercise of discretion. The interested reader would be well advised to incorporate Schooner's insights in the mix.

Gutman also stresses the need to extend procurement regulation and the possibility to exercise discretion to the execution phase. In that, he raises issues that are currently being asked across the EU, in particular concerning oversight of contractual modifications (see here). A reader familiar with these issues will not find much new in Gutman's paper, but it offers a good entry point for newcomers to the issue.

This is an econometrics paper that uses an interesting (and rather large) database of Italian contracts to 'document the causal effect of increasing buyers’ discretion on procurement outcomes'. They design their study around two different procedures for the award of works contracts: 'Works with a value above a given threshold have to be awarded through an open auction. Works below this threshold can be more easily awarded through a restricted auction, where the buyer has some discretion in terms of who (not) to invite to bid.' Or, in other words, they compare situations where the contracting authority is free to engage in a negotiated procedure with situations where a restricted procedure was mandated. In that regard, they consider that the contracting authority has a larger ability to exclude tenderers from the negotiation than from restricted procedures. I am not convinced about this, as the screening for a restricted procedure under the EU rules is rather strict and contracting authorities are not prevented from adopting any controls they would in a choice of negotiating partners. However, even with that in mind, reading the paper is interesting.

Coviello, Guglielmo & Spagnolo claim that 'Our main result is that discretion increases the probability that the same firm wins repeatedly, and it does not deteriorate (and may improve) the procurement outcomes we observe. The effects of discretion persist when we repeat the analysis controlling for the geographical location, corruption, social capital, and judicial efficiency in the region of the public buyers running the auctions'. I think that the first part of their findings is rather important, as they find discretion to entrench incumbents, either as a result of corruption or any other unobservable incumbency or first mover advantages. It is important to stress that this result is not affected by any assumptions or qualified by causality claims, as this is the straightforward result of crunching the numbers.

On the contrary, the claims of causality of discretion over improved procurement outcomes is affected by assumptions and their claims are weaker and depend on counter-explanations for the same results. On that, I am not sure that the authors carried out all controls that would be necessary or possible in terms of the advantages they find (which are small in scale, in any case), as a control by complexity of the project seems a rather clear missing piece in their testing strategy. Therefore, their results need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

As mentioned above, I think that these two papers reflect a broader trend of support for the exercise of discretion in the context of procurement -- in particular during the execution phase -- and emerging evidence (or at least claims to that evidence) that the exercise of such discretion can result in positive effects beyond the procurement phase of the public expenditure cycle. On the whole, this could push for reduced controls on the exercise of that discretion (or a lax approach to it) and a move of the focus on the design and award of the contract towards its execution.

This triggers me to think about the constraints on the exercise of that discretion (during the execution phase, but also in earlier procurement stages) that can be necessary to ensure that only positive results are achieved. Not surprisingly, I think that the key will be in the principle of competition and a pro-competitive orientated application of the proportionality principle. Roughly, that is what I will try to do in my forthcoming paper. I will post it here when ready. In the meantime, comments are most welcome.