Rejection of tenders for EU research funding, any lessons for procurement? (T-76/15)


In its Judgment of 18 January 2018 in Kenup Foundation and Others v EIT, T-76/15, EU:T:2018:9, the General Court of the Court of Justice of the EU (GC) assessed the compatibility with EU law of the rejection of a tender for funding under the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. Some of the GC's analysis in this context can provide interesting insights for the rejection of tenders in procedures controlled by the EU public procurement rules, if evaluation and award decisions are adopted through two-tier bodies (eg a technical evaluation and an overall 'political' decision-making). This could be particularly relevant in the context of competitive dialogues or innovation partnerships. To be sure, the Kenup case hinges on EU administrative law, but I think it raises issues that can be comparable in some domestic settings in the Member States.

In Kenup, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) issued a call for the designation of a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) in the field of innovation for healthy living and active ageing. The cooperation established between the EIT and the KIC would take the form of a framework partnership, with an initial duration of seven years, in the course of which grants could be paid by the EIT on the basis of the conclusion of specific agreements. The call for proposals established specific criteria for the exclusion, eligibility and selection of proposals, which were to be undertaken under EIT's responsibility. The decision on the designation of the KIC was subjected to a three-tier process, as follows:

According to the rules in ... that call for tenders, which the parties agree were complied with both by the independent experts and by the EIT, eligible proposals were to be evaluated by high-level independent external experts. Each proposal was thus examined by five experts, that is to say three thematic experts and two ‘horizontal’ experts, each responsible for an evaluation report for each proposal. The panel of experts was then required to draw up a consolidated evaluation report for each proposal. Next, the three proposals with the best rankings were evaluated by a second panel of high-level independent experts responsible for making a final recommendation containing an overview of those three proposals as well as recommendations for their improvement or reinforcement. Finally, representatives of the three proposals with the best scores were to be heard by the governing board before it designated the selected KIC (T-76/15, para 58).

Therefore, the decision on the designation of the KIC was to be made by the EIT's governing board, on the basis of the recommendation made by the second panel of experts, which only had to take into consideration the three top proposals as 'filtered' by the first panel of experts. In principle, this seems like a rather robust evaluation mechanism, in particular of the technical aspects of the proposals. However, it can also raise issues of compliance with rules on 'fully-informed' decision-making or 'unrestricted' executive discretion, as the Kenup case evidences.

In response to the call for proposals, the Kenup consortium submitted a tender under the coordination of the Stiftung Universität Lüneburg. After assessment of the proposals received in accordance with the evaluation mechanism described above, the governing board of EIT selected a  proposal for the KIC and rejected the other proposals, including Kenup's. Kenup then challenged the EIT's decision on several grounds, including issues concerned with an alleged failure by EIT to state the reasons for its decision, as well as a breach of the principles of transparency and equal treatment of tenderers.

All of these arguments are common place in the challenge of procurement decisions and their analysis would have been interesting. However, the case was decided solely on an issue concerning the implicit constraints on the exercise of executive discretion by the EIT's governing board due to the initial 'filtering' of proposals by a panel of high-level experts. This merits some close analysis.

As presented by the GC,

It follows from the evaluation process for the proposals ... that the panel of experts responsible for the final recommendation only had to examine the three proposals with the best scores following the evaluation by the first panel of experts. In addition, only representatives of those three proposals were to be heard by the governing board. In that regard, it should be noted that the call for proposals clearly indicated that the KIC would be selected by the EIT on the basis, first, of the consolidated evaluation reports relating to the three best proposals, as established by the panel of experts, secondly, of the report drawn up by the panel responsible for the final recommendation and, thirdly, of the outcome of the hearings. Accordingly, the EIT was required to make its selection only on the basis of the work carried out by the independent experts on the three proposals with the best scores and the outcome of the hearings carried out with the representatives of those proposals.

... the members of the governing board had access, via a protected website, to all the proposals submitted for the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’, including the Kenup consortium’s proposal. Furthermore, before the hearings, the director of the EIT indicated to the governing board the various stages of the evaluation procedure, including the various scores awarded overall and for sub-criteria to the five proposals submitted. However, none of the analyses of the Kenup consortium’s proposal carried out by the independent experts were submitted to the members of the governing board. Annex 1 to the information note of 1 December 2014 drawn up by the director of the EIT for the members of the governing board, produced by the EIT at the Court’s request, included merely a summary of the evaluation reports drawn up by the panel of experts relating solely to the proposals selected for the hearings. In addition, it does not follow from the procedure for the call for proposals, nor is it claimed, that members of the governing board attended the experts’ working sessions.

It is true, as the EIT maintains in its defence, that members of the governing board were free to raise questions and to request additional information concerning all the proposals and their evaluation by the experts. However, ... the members of the governing board did not possess any of the evaluations or a summary of the evaluations carried out by the panel of experts concerning the two proposals not selected for the hearings.

In any event, any initiatives of the governing board were unlikely to call into question the fact that only the three proposals with the best scores awarded by the experts could have been designated as the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’. The procedure established by the call for proposals entirely ruled out any possibility of the governing board’s selecting the Kenup consortium’s proposal and inviting its representatives to participate in the hearings, since that proposal was ranked in fourth position by the independent experts. That finding is confirmed by the wording of the letter of 10 December 2014 informing the coordinator of the Kenup consortium that its proposal had been rejected, which clearly links that exclusion with the ranking of the consortium’s proposal below third place. On that point, it may be noted ... that, in its reply to their request for further information, the EIT stated that the experts had been granted, by the call for proposals, a delegated power to preselect proposals.

Therefore, in accordance with the procedure defined in the call for proposals, the governing board could, following the hearings, only alter the ranking of the three best proposals selected by the experts ... The fact that, according to Article 15 of Regulation No 1290/2013, the selection of a KIC is made on the basis of the ranking of the proposals, in accordance with the evaluation carried out by independent experts, cannot mean that the EIT is bound, even in part, as regards the order of the proposals thus selected.

67      It follows from all the foregoing considerations that the applicants are justified in maintaining that the governing board failed fully to exercise its powers in respect of the selection of proposals, in breach of the provisions of Article 4 of Regulation No 294/2008, those powers having been delegated in part to experts without that board having, at any time, had the opportunity to make a proper assessment of the work they carried out on the proposals which were not ranked in the first three places (T-76/15, paras 61-65 & 67, emphases added).

As mentioned above, the Kenup Judgment is largely conditioned by a point of EU administrative law concerning the implicit delegation of the power to preselect proposals to the initial high-level expert panel. However, I find the case troubling in that context, and for any implications it could have in the context of procurement covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package. I have two main issues with this Judgment.

First, and foremost, that it seems to follow the worrying trend of disrespect for expert opinion. Implicit in the GC Judgment, there is an assumption that the governing board of EIT would have been able to challenge expert reports prepared in a seemingly robust manner. This seems difficult to share. Either the independent technical evaluation was needed because the governing board does not have the expertise (or time) to sift through all proposals--in which case the assumption that the governing board will look at all documents and sort of reassess all proposals from scratch is ludicrous--or it was not needed at all, and should be abandoned--which seems equally unpersuasive. More generally, it seems that the GC misunderstands the context and boundaries of the executive discretion given to EIT's governing board by the relevant EU provisions, as well as the fact that EIT had endorsed the specific evaluation mechanism (thus potentially self-constraining any broader discretion it may have had, in a manner that the GC hardly demonstrates to run contrary to any relevant constraints). From that perspective, this Judgment is at best extremely formalistic and, at worse, simply misguided.

Second, and also of importance, depending on the rules applicable under the general administrative law of the Member States, the thrust of the Kenup Judgment can result in significant difficulties (and potential challenges) in the context of complex procurement procedures where the overall (political) decision-making is supported by one or several rounds of technical evaluation aimed at filtering the initial proposals into shortlists or recommendations. If the logic in the Kenup Judgment was adopted, and the ultimate decision-makers of the contracting authorities and entities covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package were required to have before them (and effectively engage with) the entirety of the documentation with a view to (potentially) challenging technical evaluations, complex procurement procedures could become exceedingly burdensome and/or (even more of a) box-ticking exercise. Moreover, it would be possible to generate inadvertent corruption risks if the non-expert (ie political) board could second-guess or deviate from robust technical assessments and have unfettered discretion. This would run in stark contrast with the case law of the CJEU on award criteria and unlimited freedom to choose a tender.

Consequently, my overall view of the Kenup Judgment is that it does not offer any valuable (or at least useful) lesson for procurement, and that the GC would have been well-advised to have followed the opposite direction of travel. By taking into consideration the case law on procurement that requires discretion to be constrained by solid technical evaluation, the decision in Kenup could (and should) have been the opposite. I can only hope that this case is limited to the way EU research funding is administered, and that the Kenup Judgment results in a change of EIT's internal governance rules in a way that preserves and enhances the role of independent high-level technical evaluations against the erosion that the GC's Judgment has generated.