Some thoughts on being promoted to a Professorship

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Last week, I received the news that from 1 August 2019, I will be promoted to Professor of Economic Law at the University of Bristol Law School. These news have now sunk in and I am slowly getting used to the idea—as my grandma used to say, it is easy to get used to the nice things, getting used to the tough things takes some more character…

This promotion is the result of a very long administrative/HR process, which has given me some time to think about what a promotion to (full) professorship would mean and what I would like to make of my new position. It has also made me reflect on my academic career so far and on how I got here. These are some of my raw thoughts. Not sure if they will be of any interest, but I needed to spit them out.

How I got here

The short answer is that I got here by chance, with a lot of luck and even more help from mentors, colleagues, friends and students along the way. And, of course, thanks to the motivation that those interested in my scholarship have provided, particularly through this blog. I am indebted to all of them (you) and it would be impossible for me to come up with a list that covered even 10% of those generous individuals that lent me a helping hand, stimulated or challenged me intellectually, gave me platforms and opportunities to grow and, perhaps most important, made it all very enjoyable along the way.

There are a couple of other aspects of how I got here on which I have been thinking with particular intensity. The first one is that I got here as a privileged, middle-class, white, male academic with no family responsibilities. The second one is that I got here thanks to the brilliant mentoring offered by experienced female colleagues. Let me unpack this.

I enjoyed all privileges of someone that could study without having to work at the same time until I got to my PhD studies. I had a supportive family that really focused on my education from the get go and they not only put me through good schools, but also helped financially with the parts of my undergraduate studies not covered by my scholarship. I then had the privilege of working for big firms and my family’s support allowed me to save enough to self-fund my PhD. I did have to work during parts of my PhD, but mainly carrying out consultancy work to which I had access through contacts. So, all in all, I got to be a doctor (not a real one, a PhD in Law, I mean) and access academic posts thanks to the privileges I enjoyed from the day I was born, out of sheer luck. Sure, I did put in my 10,000 hours of dedication, but I did not have to overcome any significant obstacles.

I accessed academia in September of 2009 in Madrid and, despite the fact that the crisis had hit hard and there were not those many jobs, I was lucky enough to land a Lectureship at a private university—thanks, in no small part, to the contacts I had made during my time at the law firm and during my doctoral studies. I did not like the working conditions, though, so I took the gamble of moving to the UK—which I could do, in large part, thanks to the possibility of having studied languages since age 7 and having completed a European Doctorate, which saw me move to Copenhagen, Washington DC and Oxford during my doctoral studies (on my personal and family funds, which is certainly not the situation of most PhD students, either then or now).

I took my first UK lectureship in May 2012 and, just over 7 years later, I have been promoted three times and moved across three higher education institutions. This has required hard work and dedication, of course, but I have also been immensely helped by the continued enjoyment of my privileges as a middle-class, white, male academic with no family responsibilities. The last issue is the one giving me more to ponder.

Even if I am now an ‘academic dad’, my promotion application included information only until the early fall of 2018, so only just after my child was born. Thus, all work reflected in that application was done by someone without caring responsibilities. I was also extremely lucky to have a partner that understood my obsession with academia and my research and was willing to give me as much time and space as I needed to work very long hours, to travel (way too much, which I really regret and which I am seriously committed to change) and to get involved in all those extra citizenship and staff-student activities that are nigh impossible to coordinate with childcare or other types of care responsibilities.

I thought I needed to say all this because, in the right context, the fact that I got promoted at just under 40 years of age and at just under 10 years from having taken up my first lectureship, certainly does not look as impressive as comparable promotions of colleagues with very different backgrounds and personal circumstances. All of them, and all those facing difficult circumstances and discrimination in higher education (and elsewhere) have my deepest admiration and respect.

The second aspect of how I got here, which is somehow ironically related to the previous one, is that I have had the most amazing formal and informal mentors since I got to the UK and they were all experienced female colleagues. At every step of the way, but particularly since I joined the University of Bristol Law School, I have been enormously lucky to have the support and encouragement of truly great academics and generous colleagues that have helped me prioritise my work, present it in the best possible way, and constantly made me feel like I was worthy of whichever promotion or recognition I was seeking. I have also had some great male colleagues, but their commitment to nurture others, to help them grow and to enjoy doing so pales by comparison.

Interestingly enough, my mentors took me at face value and cared not about my being a privileged, middle-class, white, male academic with no family responsibilities. They were solely interested in my potential and by believing in it and making me exploit it, they have had a transformative impact in me as a scholar and as a person.

So, what type of professor do I want to be?

Needless to say, I want to continue carrying out research that I believe can have a positive social impact, and I want to remain committed to my open-access efforts to try to make my scholarship freely available to anyone interested in it. I also want to help my students learn and grow, and venture into the world with a critical perspective and a strong set of values. I want to be a good colleague and peer, and to treat those with whom I work with respect and with a sincere appreciation of their contribution to higher education.

Overall, however, I want to be a professor that enables other academics (including postgraduate students) to be the best version of themselves they can be, and a professor that does everything in their power to make higher education a better place. Again, let me unpack this, perhaps more concisely.

I want to emulate my female mentors. I want to be able to support willing and committed colleagues to blossom, regardless of their background and characteristics. I want to be committed to equality and fairness and to be able to set aside any prejudices and biases (conscious or unconscious). I want to put my seniority and whichever power or influence comes with it to the service of others, including where necessary to curb the unjustified privileges enjoyed by some at the expense of others. I do not want to shy away from difficult or conflict situations where I see an injustice being done.

I also want to make higher education a more enjoyable, more sustainable and more diverse environment for all of us working and studying in it. I want to contribute to an environment of non-instrumental intellectual curiosity and exchange. I want to make the best use of the ever-growing networking and connectivity opportunities we are offered to expand the reach of higher education and make it more accessible than ever. This is the part I still need to figure out, so I will welcome any suggestions on what needs to be done—either urgently, or in the longer run. For now, I will concentrate on sustainability issues and seek to influence others into adopting no/less-fly policies. It may not amount to much, but it is a start (for me).

Some quick thoughts on blockchain use cases in procurement

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Interest in the use of blockchain in the context of public procurement keeps rising by the day. It is hard to find a country where this is not a topic of discussion, although there seems to be a wide spectrum from enthusiastic and proactive approaches (eg in the UK, with the promotion of procurement-centred blockchain use cases by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Blockchain) to more skeptical and wait-and-see approaches (in Scandinavian countries, eg Denmark or Sweden).

At the same time as some theoretical work starts to emerge—see eg Sope Williams-Elegbe’s exploratory inaugural lecture and Raquel Carvalho’s (not always very clear or accurate) recent paper—the need to get some practical insights in order to support theoretical speculation becomes all-important. However, accessing this information can be a little tricky, in particular if local or regional projects are only publicised in languages other than English.

So we organised a couple of webinars on the topic and asked participants to pool together any use cases they know of (and thanks to all of them for their contributions). In rough terms (and with apologies for any over-simplification), it looks like there are three main areas of experimentation:

  1. Development of proof-of-concept / pilot projects seeking to tackle some parts of the procurement process, such as (a) initiatives on exclusion/selection of tenderers in Costa Rica and the Basque Country (Spain) and (b) initiatives on tender submission and evaluation by smart contracts in Aragon (Spain)

  2. Development of proof-of-concept / pilot projects seeking to carry out the entire procurement process on the blockchain, such as in Mexico (federal level) and Cape Town (South Africa)

  3. Development of ‘blockchain-like’ database approaches that seek to replicate some of the main features of a blockchain (in terms of data de-centralisation and tamper-evidence features), such as some projects run by the EBRD

We also learnt about other Govtech / Regtech applications of blockchain, such as the Finnish initiatives to provide bank cards to refugees and to centralise the exchange of information on mandatory motor vehicle insurance. There are also other well-known projects around property registers (eg for land and IP).

On the whole, though, it seems like the most promising potential applications of blockchain are those linked to information management/storage and the transfer of digital assets, and that there is more potential in those cases where there is no existing (working) database for their management. The difficulties of implementing blockchain-based solutions for not-super-simple procurement and off-chain aspects of procurement seem too high to overcome any time soon.

It also seems like that there is a certain tension between the promise of transparency associated with blockchain infrastructure and the other attributes of the technology (mainly, tamper-evidence qualities), at least where the design of the blockchain is heavily permissioned and centralised. Perhaps as a very European issue (but also more broadly), compliance with data protection rules also comes up as a legal hurdle in every other project.

If you know of any other blockchain use cases in procurement, or if you have any other views on the potential of this technology for procurement governance, please comment on this post or get in touch: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk

The ethics of abusing your time at the podium

This is a personal reflection on the unethical behaviour of those academics that abuse their time at the podium when speaking at conferences—or those that deliver uninvited pseudo-speeches while pretending to formulate questions or comments. This is based on real facts. I do not apologise for any extreme views expressed here. 

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If you are an academic or have ever attended an academic conference, you probably know what I am talking about. Unless the conference is well-organised and time is zealously kept by a dedicated moderator/chair (and those who do should be highly praised for what really is an ungrateful and rather stressful job), there is always (*always*) someone that abuses their time at the podium. I am not talking about one- or two-minute overruns, but rather about speakers that happily exceed their time by 20’ or so, usually oblivious to or wilfully ignoring any polite notes (less than) discreetly passed to them by the organisers. 

In my personal experience, this tends to be perpetrated by a senior colleague that has barely prepared and/or is delivering the exact same presentation we have already heard, perhaps with a minor tweak. This would, even if delivered within the allocated time, in itself be reprehensible behaviour (but let’s save that for another day). It is, of course, possible that time is exceeded while discussing new ideas and arguments, but that does not substantially change the impact of time abuse (see below).

The culprit also tends to be a male colleague that would be highly insulted if someone (particularly someone junior, particularly a female colleague) tried to whip him into compliance with the programmed schedule and the usually also agreed upon rules for the panel/session/roundtable—you know, those previous emails that seek to avoid content overlap and that make it clear that you have 20, 12 or however many minutes to deliver your initial material before engaging in questions and answers.

Further, in my experience, this is also much more likely to happen in academic environments where seniority—and fear of the power of the seniors—drives group dynamics in academic conferences. That is, I have experienced this usually in Mediterranean countries (particularly Spain and Italy) and sometimes in continental Europe (notably, Germany). I have had the opposite experiences in the UK and Finland, and further afield, to say it all.

The effects of abusing time at the podium tend to always be the same and threefold: audience disengagement, squeezing or suppression of time for others’ views (be it other scheduled presentations or genuine debate) and a general lowering of the quality of the event. In my view, generating these results is unethical and disrespectful, and those abusing their time at the podium should be shamed into shutting up and sitting down. Moreover, organisers of academic events have a fiduciary duty towards all speakers and participants to ensure delivery of the programme as planned. Let me expand.

Those that overrun demonstrate their disregard for other people’s work and time. They disrespect colleagues scheduled to speak after them and their effort preparing their own speeches, practicing them and timing them to fit the allocated slot. Of course, not having done so themselves, they are probably also underestimating the effort that goes into that. They clearly do not think that their participation in the conference is part of a greater whole and that they too are there to learn.

They also disrespect the audience and ignore the abuse of power that social convention enables them to exert by having been put in the spotlight. However interesting the message, the audience is not there solely to listen to them. The audience is also not there as a simple receptacle of their own voice—unless the event was clearly advertised as not including any sort of time for Q&A or interaction whatsoever. Finally, they also disrespect and put significant pressure on the moderator/chair/organiser, as they are then forced to either become complicit in the unethical abuse or discharge their fiduciary duty—none of which is their preferred alternative.

On the fiduciary duty. Well, it is plain to me that organisers of an event and chairs/moderators (organisers for short) have, first and foremost, a fiduciary duty towards the audience. That duty is, simply put, to make everything possible to deliver the programme as planned. Of course, there can be unforeseen circumstances that make it difficult or impossible. In that case, all that can be done is to readjust things as best as possible. However, tolerating time overruns is not such an unforeseen situation.

Moreover, organisers have a fiduciary duty to all speakers to enable them to present their ideas and to deliver the result of their work and preparation. Funny enough, organisers are keener for this to happen when they pay the speakers than when they get the content for free, which is another f*&^ed aspect of the conferencing game (also best saved for another day). When organisers allow a/some speakers to abuse their time at the podium, they are simply telling all other speakers that their expertise and preparation are not as valuable as those of the perpetrator. Tertium non datur.

So, what’s the ethical approach to delivering a speech at a conference? As far as I can formulate it, I think this boils down to: showing up prepared, ready to present your best possible ideas and to deliver them to the best of your ability, within the allocated time, and being open to challenge and discussion, to engage with such exchanges, and to contribute to debates surrounding the contributions of other speakers and participants. Honestly, if someone is not ready to act ethically, I’d rather they stayed out of it. Whatever their expertise and brilliance. And the same goes for anyone organising these events. If not ready to run them ethically, then better not organise them at all.

If you got this far, you may be nodding in agreement. Or you may think that I am simply sour and should take it easier. Either way, thanks for reading.

Oracles as a sub-hype in blockchain discussions, or how my puppy helps me get to 10,000 steps a day

Photo: Rob Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal.

Photo: Rob Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal.

The more I think about the use of blockchain solutions in the context of public procurement governance—and, more generally, of public services delivery—the more I find that the inability for blockchain technology to reliably connect to the ‘real world’ is bound to restrict any potentially useful applications to back-office functions and the procurement of strictly digital assets.

This is simply because blockchain can only generate its desirable effects of tamper-evident record-keeping and automated execution of smart contracts built on top of it to the extent that it does not require off-chain inputs. Blockchain is also structurally incapable of generating off-chain outputs by itself.

This is increasingly widely-known and is generating a sub-hype around oracles—which are devices aimed at plugging blockchains to the ‘real world’, either by feeding the blockchain with data, or by outputting data from the blockchain (as discussed eg here). In this blog post, I reflect on the minimal changes that I think the development of oracles is likely to have in the context of public procurement governance.

Why would blockchain be interesting in this context?

Generally, the potential for the use of blockchain and blockchain-enabled smart contracts to improve procurement governance is linked to the promise that it can help prevent corruption and mistakes through the automation of decision-making through the procurement process and the execution of public contracts and the immutability (rectius, tamper-evidence) of procurement records. There are two main barriers to the achievement of such improvements over current processes and governance mechanisms. One concerns transactions costs and information asymmetries (as briefly discussed here). The other concerns the massive gap between the virtual on-chain reality and the off-chain real world—which oracles are trying to bridge.

The separation between on-chain and off-chain reality is paramount to the analysis of governance issues and the impact blockchain can have. If blockchain can only displace the focus of potential corrupt or mistaken intervention—by the public buyer, or by public contractors—but not eliminate such risks, its potential contribution to a revolution of procurement governance certainly reduces in various orders of magnitude. So it is important to assess the extent to which blockchain can be complemented with other solutions (oracles) to achieve the elimination of points of entry for corrupt or mistaken activity, rather than their displacement or substitution.

Oracle’s vulnerabilities: my puppy wears my fitbit

In simple terms, oracles are data interfaces that connect a blockchain to a database or a source of data (for a taxonomy and some discussion, see here). This makes them potentially unreliable as (i) the oracle can only be as good as the data it relies on and (ii) the oracle can itself be manipulated. There are thus, two main sources of oracle vulnerability, which automatically translate into blockchain vulnerability.

First, the data can be manipulated—like when I prefer to sit and watch some TV rather than go for a run and tie my fitbit to my puppy’s collar so that, by midnight, I have still achieved my 10,000 daily steps.* Second, the oracle itself can be manipulated because it is a piece of software or hardware that can be tampered with, and perhaps in a way that is not readily evident and which uncovering requires some serious IT forensics—like getting a friend to crack fitbit’s code and add 10,000 daily steps to my database without me even needing to charge my watch.**

Unlilke when these issues concern the extent to which I lie to myself about my healthy lifestyle, these two vulnerabilities are highly problematic from a public governance perspective because, unless the data used in the interaction with the blockchain is itself automatically generated in a way that cannot be manipulated (and this starts to point at a mirror within a mirror situation, see below), the effect of implementing a blockchain plus oracle simply seems to be to displace the governance focus where controls need to be placed towards the source of the data and the devices used to collect it.

But oracles can get better! — sure, but only to deal with data

The sub-hype around oracles in blockchain discussions basically follows the same trend as the main hype around blockchain. The same way it is assumed that blockchain is bound to revolutionise everything because it will get so much better than it currently is, there are emerging arguments about the almost boundless potential for oracles to connect the real world to the blockchain in so much better ways. I do not have the engineering or futurology credentials necessary to pass judgement on this, but it seems to me plain to see that—unless we want to add an additional layer about robotics (and pretty evolved robotics at that), so that we consider blockchain+oracle+robot solutions—any and all advances will remain limited to improving the way data is generated/captured and exploited within and outside the blockchain.

So, for everything that is not data-based or data-transformable (such as the often used example of event tickets, which in the end get plugged back to a database that determines their effects in the real world)—or, in other words, where moving digital tokes around does not generate the necessary effects in the real world—even much advanced blockchain+oracle solutions are likely to remain of limited use in the context of procurement and the delivery of public services. Not because the applications are not (technically) possible, but because they generate governance problems that merely replace the current ones. And the advantage is not necessarily obvious.

How far can we displace governance problems and still reap some advantages?

What do I mean that the advantage is not necessarily obvious? Well, imagine the possibility of having a blockchain+oracle control the inventory of a given consumable, so that the oracle feeds information into the blockchain about the existing level of stock and about new deliveries made by the supplier, so that automated payments are made eg on a per available unit basis. This could be seen as a possible application to avoid the need for different ways of controlling the execution of the contract—or even for the need to procure the consumable in the first place, if a smart contract in the blockchain (the same, or a separate one) is automatically buying them on the basis of a closed system (eg a framework agreement or dynamic purchasing system based on electronic catalogues) or even in the ‘open market’ of the internet. Would this not be advantageous from a governance perspective?

Well, I think it would be a matter of degree because there would still need to be a way of ensuring that the oracle is not tampered with and that what the oracle is capturing reflects reality. There are myriad ways in which you could manipulate most systems—and, given the right economic incentives, there will always be attempts to manipulate even the most sophisticated systems we may want to put in place—so checks will always be needed. At this stage, the issue becomes one of comparing the running costs of the system. Unless the cost of the blockchain+oracle+new checks (plus the cybersecurity needed to keep them up and properly running) is lower than the cost of existing systems (including inefficiencies derived from corruption and mistakes), there is no obvious advantage and likely no public interest in the implementation of solutions based on these disruptive technologies.

Which leads me to the new governance issue that has started to worry me: the control of ‘business cases’ for the implementation of blockchain-based solutions in the context of public procurement (and public governance more generally). Given the lack of data and the difficulty in estimating some of the risks and costs of both the existing systems and any proposed new blockchain solutions, who is doing the math and on the basis of what? I guess convincingly answering this will require some more research, but I certainly have a hunch that not much robust analysis is going on…

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* I do not have a puppy, though, so I really end up doing my own running…

** I am not sure this is technically doable, but hopefully it works for the sake of the example…

Legal text analytics: some thoughts on where (I think) things stand

Researching the area of artificial intelligence and the law (AI & Law) has currently taken me to the complexities of natural language processing (NLP) applied to legal texts (aka legal text analytics). Trying to understand the extent to which AI can be used to perform automated legal analysis—or, more modestly, to support humans in performing legal analysis—requires (at least) a view of the current possibilities for AI tools to (i) extract information from legal sources (or ‘understand’ them and their relationships), (ii) assess their relevance to a given legal problem and (iii) apply the legal source to provide a legal solution to the problem (or to suggest one for human validation).

Of course, this obviates other issues such as the need for AI to be able to understand the factual situation to formulate the relevant legal problem, to assess or rank different legal solutions where available, or take into account additional aspects such as the likelihood of obtaining a remedy, etc—all of which could be tackled by fields of AI & Law different from legal text analytics. The above also ignores other aspects of ‘understanding’ documents, such as the ability for an algorithm to distinguish factual and legal issues within a legal document (ie a judgment) or to extract basic descriptive information (eg being able to create a citation based on the information in the judgment, or to cluster different types of provisions within a contract or across contracts)—some of which seems to be at hand or soon to be developed on the basis of the recently released Google ‘Document Understanding AI’ tool.

The latest issue of Artificial Intelligence and the Law luckily concentrates on ‘Natural Language Processing for Legal Texts’ and offers some help in trying to understand where things currently stand regarding issues (i) and (ii) above. In this post, I offer some reflections based on my understanding of two of the papers included in the special issue: Nanda et al (2019) and Chalkidis & Kampas (2019). I may have gotten the specific technical details wrong (although I hope not), but I think I got the functional insights.

Establishing relationships between legal sources

One of the problems that legal text analytics is trying to solve concerns establishing relationships between different legal sources—which can be a partial aspect of the need to ‘understand’ them (issue (i) above). This is the main problem discussed in Nanda et al, 'Unsupervised and supervised text similarity systems for automated identification of national implementing measures of European directives' (2019) 27(2) Artificial Intelligence and Law 199-225. In this piece of research, AI is used to establish whether a provision of a national implementing measure (NIM) transposes a specific article of an EU Directive or not. In extremely simplified terms, the researchers train different algorithms to perform text comparison. The researchers work on a closed list of 43 EU Directives and the corresponding Luxembuorgian, Irish and Italian NIMs. The following table plots their results.

Nanda et al (2019: 208, Figure 6).

The table shows that the best AI solution developed by the researchers (the TF-IDF cosine) achieves levels of precision of around 83% for Luxembourg, 77% for Italy and 68% for Ireland. These seem like rather impressive results but a qualitative analysis of their experiment indicates that the significantly better performance for Luxembourgian transposition over Italian or Irish transposition likely results from the fact that Luxembourg tends to largely ‘copy & paste’ EU Directives into national law, whereas the Italian and Irish legislators adopt a more complex approach to the integration of EU rules into their existing legal instruments.

Moreover, it should be noted that the algorithms are working on a very specific issue, as they are only assessing the correspondence between provisions of EU and NIM instruments that were related—that is, they are operating in a closed or walled dataset that does not include NIMs that do not transpose any of the 43 chosen Directives. Once these aspects of the research design are taken into account, there are a number of unanswered questions, such as the precision that the algorithms would have if they had to compare entire NIMs against an open-ended list of EU Directives, or if they were used to screen for transposition rules. While the first issue could probably be answered simply extending the experiment, the second issue would probably require a different type of AI design.

On the whole, my impression after reading this interesting piece of research is that AI is still relatively far from a situation where it can provide reliable answers to the issue of establishing relationships across legal sources, particularly if one thinks of relatively more complex relationships than transposition within the EU context, such as development, modification or repeal of a given set of rules by other (potentially dispersed) rules.

Establishing relationships between legal problems and legal sources

A separate but related issue requires AI to identify legal sources that could be relevant to solve a specific legal problem (issue (ii) above)—that is, the relevant relationship is not across legal sources (as above), but between a legal problem or question and relevant legal sources.

This is covered in part of the literature review included in Chalkidis & Kampas, ‘Deep learning in law: early adaptation and legal word embeddings trained on large corpora‘ (2019) 27(2) Artificial Intelligence and Law 171-198 (see esp 188-194), where they discuss some of the solutions given to the task of the Competition on Legal Information Extraction/Entailment (COLIEE) from 2014 to 2017, which focused ‘on two aspects related to a binary (yes/no) question answering as follows: Phase one of the legal question answering task involves reading a question Q and extract[ing] the legal articles of the Civil Code that are relevant to the question. In phase two the systems should return a yes or no answer if the retrieved articles from phase one entail or not the question Q’.

The paper covers four different attempts at solving the task. It reports that the AI solutions developed to address the two binary questions achieved the following levels of precision: 66.67% (Morimoto et al. (2017)); 63.87% (Kim et al. (2015)); 57.6% (Do et al. (2017)); 53.8% (Nanda et al. (2017)). Once again, these results are rather impressive but some contextualisation may help to assess the extent to which this can be useful in legal practice.

The best AI solution was able to identify relevant provisions that entailed the relevant question 2 out of 3 times. However, the algorithms were once again working on a closed or walled field because they solely had to search for relevant provisions in the Civil Code. One can thus wonder whether algorithms confronted with the entirety of a legal order would be able to reach even close degrees of accuracy.

Some thoughts

Based on the current state of legal text analytics (as far as I can see it), it seems clear that AI is far from being able to perform independent/unsupervised legal analysis and provide automated solutions to legal problems (issue (iii) above) because there are still very significant shortcomings concerning issues of ‘understanding’ natural language legal texts (issue (i)) and adequately relating them to specific legal problems (issue (ii)). That should not be surprising.

However, what also seems clear is that AI is very far from being able to confront the vastness of a legal order and that, much as lawyers themselves, AI tools need to specialise and operate within the narrower boundaries of sub-domains or quite contained legal fields. When that is the case, AI can achieve much higher degrees of precision—see examples of information extraction precision above 90% in Chalkidis & Kampas (2019: 194-196) in projects concerning Chinese credit fraud judgments and Canadian immigration rules.

Therefore, the current state of legal text analytics seems to indicate that AI is (quickly?) reaching a point where algorithms can be used to extract legal information from natural language text sources within a specified legal field (which needs to be established through adequate supervision) in a way that allows it to provide fallible or incomplete lists of potentially relevant rules or materials for a given legal issue. However, this still requires legal experts to complement the relevant searches (to bridge any gaps) and to screen the proposed materials for actual relevance. In that regard, AI does hold the promise of much better results than previous expert systems and information retrieval systems and, where adequately trained, it can support and potentially improve legal research (ie cognitive computing, along the lines developed by Ashley (2017)). However, in my view, there are extremely limited prospects for ‘independent functionality’ of legaltech solutions. I would happily hear arguments to the contrary, though!

New paper: ‘Screening for Cartels’ in Public Procurement: Cheating at Solitaire to Sell Fool’s Gold?

I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN, where I critically assess the bid rigging screening tool published by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority in 2017. I will be presenting it in a few weeks at the V Annual meeting of the Spanish Academic Network for Competition Law. The abstract is as follows:

Despite growing global interest in the use of algorithmic behavioural screens, big data and machine learning to detect bid rigging in procurement markets, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) was under no obligation to undertake a project in this area, much less to publish a bid-rigging algorithmic screening tool and make it generally available. Yet, in 2017 and under self-imposed pressure, the CMA released ‘Screening for Cartels’ (SfC) as ‘a tool to help procurers screen their tender data for signs of illegal bid-rigging activity’ and has since been trying to raise its profile internationally. There is thus a possibility that the SfC tool is not only used by UK public buyers, but also disseminated and replicated in other jurisdictions seeking to implement ‘tried and tested’ solutions to screen for cartels. This paper argues that such a legal transplant would be undesirable.

In order to substantiate this main claim, and after critically assessing the tool, the paper tracks the origins of the indicators included in the SfC tool to show that its functionality is rather limited as compared with alternative models that were put to the CMA. The paper engages with the SfC tool’s creation process to show how it is the result of poor policy-making based on the material dismissal of the recommendations of the consultants involved in its development, and that this has resulted in the mere illusion that big data and algorithmic screens are being used to detect bid rigging in the UK. The paper also shows that, as a result of the ‘distributed model’ used by the CMA, the algorithms underlying the SfC tool cannot improved through training, the publication of the SfC tool lowers the likelihood of some types of ‘easy to spot cases’ by signalling areas of ‘cartel sophistication’ that can bypass its tests and that, on the whole, the tool is simply not fit for purpose. This situation is detrimental to the public interest because reliance in a defective screening tool can create a false perception of competition for public contracts, and because it leads to immobilism that delays (or prevents) a much-needed engagement with the extant difficulties in developing a suitable algorithmic screen based on proper big data analytics. The paper concludes that competition or procurement authorities willing to adopt the SfC tool would be buying fool’s gold and that the CMA was wrong to cheat at solitaire to expedite the deployment of a faulty tool.

The full citation of the paper is: Sanchez-Graells, Albert, ‘Screening for Cartels’ in Public Procurement: Cheating at Solitaire to Sell Fool’s Gold? (May 3, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3382270

I won't fly to your conference, but I hope you will still invite me to participate

I was really proud to see that the University of Bristol declared a climate emergency. It was one of those moments that makes you feel part of a worthwhile institution (despite its many other flaws, like all institutions). Inspired by the exploding #Fridaysforclimate movement and the speeches of brave activist @GretaThunberg, I had been thinking about what I could personally do to contribute to the needed paradigm change. It did not take much reflection to realise that the most effective change in my professional life would clearly be to cut down travel, specially by air. And so, the University’s announcement prompted me to ‘go public’ with it.

This tweet prompted a series of exchanges with colleagues from Bristol and elsewhere. The reaction was mainly in three directions. First, that such a personal ‘no travel policy’ may be impossible to adopt in the context of (UK) academia, where public and conference speaking is used as both a measure of ‘academic productivity’ and as a proxy for esteem/standing in the field for the purposes of eg promotion—so, either you travel, or you may be seen as not doing your job or/and not worthy of (further) promotion. Second, that this would reduce the likely impact of my research and cut me off from potentially relevant audiences. Third, that this would exclude some of the very enjoyable moments that come with academic conferences, where you end up socialising with likely-minded colleagues and developing networks of collaborators and, if lucky, friends.

All of these are important points, so I have given this a little bit more thought.

First, I have to concede that not traveling to conferences will be an issue in terms of justifying my engagement with the academic (and policy-making) communities unless I manage to find a way to still participate in conferences. But this should not be too difficult. Today, there is large number of options to organise webinars and to allow for remote participation in meetings, so there is really no excuse not to take advantage of them. The technology is there and most institutions offer the required equipment and software, so it is high time that academics (and policy-makers) start using it as the default way of organising our interactions. This can even have secondary positive effects, such as the possibility of recording and publishing all or part of the conferences/meetings, so that different people can engage with the discussion at different times.

I also concede that not traveling to conferences and workshops can have a negative impact on ‘CV-building’ and that this will reduce any academic’s prospect of promotion. But I can only say that, to my shame and regret, I have been burning too much CO2 to get to my current academic position. In current lingo, I have exhausted (or, more likely, exceeded) my CO2 budget for conferences, so I can no longer afford to do it. If this means that my employer may not consider me deserving of a higher academic position as they may otherwise have, then I will have to accept any delays that come from implementing a no travel policy. In the grand scheme of things, this is a tiny sacrifice.

I acknowledge that this is something I can do from the very privileged academic position I am lucky to have, so I have no intention of proselytising. However, I do plan to try to change the system. I will work with my local trade union branch to see if we can make specific proposals to reduce the CO2 footprint of the promotions procedure. I will also organise webinars and non-presential conferences and offer every opportunity I can, in particular to early career researchers, so that academics can carry on with ‘CV-building’ (and, more importantly, knowledge-exchange) despite not traveling. These are the remedial actions I can and will implement. If you can think of others, please let me know. I would be more than happy to chip in.

Second, I must say that I have generally reached the audience for my academic work online. Only very rarely have I spoken at a conference or workshop where participants did not know my work from my SSRN page and this blog. With the partial exception of Brussels-based policy-makers (when I have been member of expert groups), every other policy-making body and NGO that has engaged with my work has done so remotely and, oftentimes, without any sort of direct conversation or exchange. There are plenty opportunities for academics to share their work online on open access and this has made the need for last-century-type conferences and workshops largely redundant for the purposes of knowledge and research dissemination. We need to realise this and use it to the advantage of a lower CO2 footprint for knowledge exchange.

Third, the social component is more difficult to address. There is no question that socialising at conferences and workshops has value in and of itself. It is also clear that, once you establish a network, you do not need to meet regularly with your collaborators and friends (however nice it is) to keep it going. So this may be the only aspect of conference travel that could justify going to a very specific event eg to establish new connections or to rekindle/deepen existing ones. But maybe this can be done without flying—eg in the case of UK-based academics like me, to prioritise conferences in Europe and convincing our employers and ourselves to take the extra time to travel by train or bus (anecdotally, most academics I know love train trips).

So, all in all, I have reaffirmed myself in the commitment to minimise my conference travel and, from today, I plan to not accept invitations to speak at or attend any conferences that require me to fly (although I will still fulfill the few prior commitments that I have). I will always ask for a ‘virtual alternative’, though, and I am really hoping that this will be acceptable (or even welcome).

Thus, in case you organise a conference on a topic within my expertise, here is my message: I will not fly to your conference, but I hope you will still invite me to participate. I hope you will because we have the technology to do this and because I value of our exchanges.

Response to UK Cabinet Office consultation on 'Social Value in Government Contracts'

The UK Cabinet Office is currently consulting on its draft policy on ‘Social Value in Government Contracts’ and will be receiving submissions until 10 June 2019. Below is my contribution to the public consultation, which will probably make more sense if read after the consultation paper. Comments and feedback most welcome.

Further thoughts on data and policy indicators a-propos two recent papers on procurement regulation & competition: comments re (Tas: 2019a&b)

The EUI Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies’ working papers series has two interesting recent additions on the economic analysis of procurement regulation and its effects on competition, efficiency and value for money. Both papers are by BKO Tas.

The first paper: ‘Bunching Below Thresholds to Manipulate Public Procurement’ explores the effects of a contracting authority’s ‘bunching strategy’ to seek to exercise more discretion by artificially estimating the value of future contracts just below the thresholds that would trigger compliance with EU procurement rules. This paper is relevant to the broader discussion on the usefulness and adequacy of current EU (and WTO GPA) value thresholds (see eg the work of Telles, here and here), as well as on the regulatory decisions that EU Member States face on whether to extend the EU rules to ‘below-threshold’ contracts.

The second paper: ‘Effect of Public Procurement Regulation on Competition and Cost-Effectiveness’ uses the World Bank’s ‘Benchmarking Public Procurement’ quality scores to empirically test the positive effects of improved regulation quality on competition and value for money, measured as increases in the number of bidders and the probability that procurement price is lower than estimated cost. This paper is relevant in the context of recent discussions about the usefulness or not of procurement benchmarks, and regarding the increasing concern about reduced number of bids in EU-regulated public tenders.

In this blog post, I reflect on the methodology and insights of both papers, paying particular attention to the fact that both papers build on datasets and/or indexes (TED, the WB benchmark) that I find rather imperfect and unsuitable for this type of analysis (regarding TED, in the context of the Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement (SMPP) that builds upon it, see here; regarding the WB benchmark, see here). Therefore, not all criticisms below are to the papers themselves, but rather to the distortions that skewed, incomplete or misleading data and indicators can have on more refined analysis that builds upon them.

Bunching Below Thresholds to Manipulate Procurement (Tas: 2019a)

It is well-known that the EU procurement rules are based on a series of jurisdictional triggers and that one of them concerns value thresholds—currently regulated in Arts 4 & 5 of Directive 2014/24/EU. Contracts with an estimated value above those thresholds are subjected to the entire EU procurement regulation, whereas contracts of a lower value are solely subjected to principles-based requirements where they are of ‘cross-border interest’. Given the obvious temptation/interest in keeping procurement shielded from EU requirements, the EU Directives have included an anti-circumvention rule aimed at preventing Member States from artificially splitting contracts in order to keep their award below the relevant jurisdictional thresholds (Art 5(3) Dir 2014/24). This rule has been interpreted expansively by the Court of Justice of the European Union (see eg here).

‘Bunching Below Thresholds to Manipulate Public Procurement’ examines the effects of a practice that would likely infringe the anti-circumvention rule, as it assesses a strategy of ‘bunching estimated costs just below thresholds’ ‘to exercise more discretion in public procurement’. The paper develops a methodology to identify contracting authorities ‘that have higher probabilities of bunching estimated values below EU thresholds’ (ie manipulative authorities) and finds that ‘[m]anipulative authorities have significantly lower probabilities of employing competitive procurement procedure. The bunching manipulation scheme significantly diminishes cost-effectiveness of public procurement. On average, prices of below threshold contracts are 18-28% higher when the authority has an elevated probability of bunching.’ These are quite striking (but perhaps not surprising) results.

The paper employs a regression discontinuity approach to determine the likelihood of bunching. In order to do that, the paper relies on the TED database. The paper is certainly difficult to read and hardly intelligible for a lawyer, but there are some issues that raise important questions. One concerns the authors’ (mis)understanding of how the WTO GPA and the EU procurement rules operate, in particular when the paper states that ‘Contracts covered by the WTO GPA are subject to additional scrutiny by international organizations and authorities (sic). Accordingly, contracts covered by the WTO GPA are less likely to be manipulated by EU authorities’ (p. 12).  This is simply an acritical transplant of considerations made by the authors of a paper that examined procurement in the Czech Republic, where the relevant threshold between EU covered and non-EU covered procurement would make sense. Here, the distinction between WTO GPA and EU-covered procurement simply makes no sense, given that WTO GPA and EU thresholds are coordinated. This alone raises some issues concerning the tests designed by the author to check the robustness of the hypothesis that bunching leads to inefficiency in procurement expenditure.

Another issue concerns the way in which the author equates open procedures to a ‘first price auction mechanism’ (which they are not exactly) and dismisses other procedures (notably, the restricted procedure) as incapable of ensuring value for money or, more likely, as representative of a higher degree of discretion for the contracting authority—which is a highly questionable assumption.

More importantly, I am not sure that the author understood what is in the TED database and, crucially, what is not there (see section 2 of Tas (2019a) for methodology and data description). Albeit not very clearly, the author presents TED as a comprehensive database of procurement notices—ie, as if 100% of procurement expenditure by Member States was recorded there. However, in the specific context of bunching below thresholds, the TED database is very likely to be incomplete.

Contracting authorities tendering contracts below EU thresholds are under no obligation to publish a contract notice (Art 49 Dir 2014/24). They could publish voluntarily, in particular in the form of a voluntary ex ante transparency (VEAT) notice, but that would make no sense from the perspective of a contracting authority that seeks to avoid compliance with EU rules by bunching (ie manipulating) the estimated contract value, as that would expose it to potential litigation. Most authorities that are bunching their procurement needs (or, in simple terms) avoiding compliance with the EU rules will not be reflected in the TED database at all, or will not be identified by the methodology used by Tas (2019a), as they will not have filed any notices for contracts below thresholds.

How is it possible that TED includes notices regarding contracts below the EU thresholds, then? Well, this is anybody’s guess, but mine is that a large proportion of those notices will be linked to either countries with a tradition of full transparency (over-reporting), to contracts where there are any doubts about the potential cross-border interest (sometimes assessed over-cautiously), or will be notices with mistakes, where the estimated value of the contract is erroneously indicated as below thresholds.

Even if my guess was incorrect and all notices for contracts with a value below thresholds were accurate and justified by the existence of a potential cross-border interest, the database cannot be considered complete. One of the issues raised (imperfectly) by the Single Market Scoreboard (indicator [3] publication rate) is the relatively low level of procurement that is advertised in TED compared to the (putative/presumptive) total volume of procurement expenditure by the Member States. Without information on the conditions of the vast majority of contract awards (below thresholds, unreported, etc), any analysis of potential losses of competitiveness / efficiency in public expenditure (due to bunching or otherwise) is bound to be misleading.

Moreover, Tas (2019a) is premised on the hypothesis that procurement below EU thresholds allows for significantly more discretion than procurement above those thresholds. However, this hypothesis fails to recognise the variety of transposition strategies at Member State level. While some countries have opted for less stringent below EU threshold regimes, others have extended the EU rules to the entirety of their procurement (or, perhaps, to contracts up to and including much lower values than the EU thresholds, to the exception of some class of ‘micropurchases’). This would require the introduction of a control that could refine Tas’ analysis and distinguish those cases of bunching that do lead to more discretion and those that do not (at least formally)—which could perhaps distinguish between price effects derived from national-only transparency from those of more legally-dubious maneuvering.

In my view, regardless of the methodology and the math underpinning the paper (which I am in no position to assess in detail), once these data issues are taken into account, the story the paper tries to tell breaks down and there are important shortcomings in its empirical strategy that, in my view, raise significant issues around the strength of its findings—assessed not against the information in TED, but against the (largely unknown, unrecorded) reality of procurement in the EU.

I have no doubt that there is bunching in practice, and that the intuition that it raises procurement costs must be right, but I have serious doubts about the possibility to reliably identify bunching or estimate its effects on the basis of the information in TED, as most culprits will not be included and the effects of below threshold (national) competition only will mostly not be accounted for.

(Good) Regulation, Competition & Cost-Effectiveness (Tas: 2019b)

It is also a very intuitive hypothesis that better regulation should lead to better procurement outcomes and, consequently, that more open and robust procurement rules should lead to more efficiency in the expenditure of public funds. As mentioned above, Tas (2019b) explores this hypothesis and seeks to empirically test it using the TED database and the World Bank’s Benchmarking Public Procurement (in its 2017 iteration, see here). I will not repeat my misgivings about the use of the TED database as a reliable source of information. In this second part, I will solely comment on the use of the WB’s benchmark.

The paper relies on four of the WB’s benchmark indicators (one further constructed by Djankov et al (2017)): the ‘bid preparation score, bid and contract management score, payment of suppliers score and PP overall index’. The paper includes a useful table with these values (see Tas (2019b: Table 4)), which allows the author to rank the countries according to the quality of their procurement regulation. The findings of Tas (2019b) are thus entirely dependent on the quality of the WB’s benchmark and its ability to capture (and distinguish) good procurement regulation.

In order to test the extent to which the WB’s benchmark is a good input for this sort of analysis, I have compared it to the indicator that results from the European Commission’s Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement (SMSPP, in its 2018 iteration). The comparison is rather striking …

Source: own elaboration.

Source: own elaboration.

Clearly, both sets of indicators are based on different methodologies and measure relatively different things. However, they are both intended to express relevant regulators’ views on what constitutes ‘good procurement regulation’. In my view, both of them fail to do so for reasons already given (see here and here).

The implications for work such as Tas (2019b) is that the reliability of the findings—regardless of the math underpinning them—is as weak as the indicators they are based on. Likely, plugging the same methods to the SMSPP instead of the WB’s index would yield very different results—perhaps, that countries with very low quality of procurement regulation (as per the SMSPP index) achieve better economic results, which would not be a popular story with policy-makers…  and the results with either index would also be different if the algorithms were not fed by TED, but by a more comprehensive and reliable database.

So, the most that can be said is that attempts to empirically show effects of good (or poor) procurement regulation remain doomed to fail or , in perhaps less harsh terms, doomed to tell a story based on a very skewed, narrow and anecdotal understanding of procurement and an incomplete recording of procurement activity. Believe those stories at your own peril…

Data and procurement policy: some thoughts on the Single Market Scoreboard for public procurement

There is a growing interest in the use of big data to improve public procurement performance and to strengthen procurement governance. This is a worthy endeavour and, like many others, I am concentrating my research efforts in this area. I have not been doing this for too long. However, soon after one starts researching the topic, a preliminary conclusion clearly emerges: without good data, there is not much that can be done. No data, no fun. So far so good.

It is thus a little discouraging to confirm that, as is widely accepted, there is no good data architecture underpinning public procurement practice and policy in the EU (and elsewhere). Consequently, there is a rather limited prospect of any real implementation of big data-based solutions, unless and until there is a significant investment in the creation of a proper data foundation that can enable advanced analysis and policy-making. Adopting the Open Contracting Data Standard for the European Union would be a good place to start. We could then discuss to what extent the data needs to be fully open (hint: it should not be, see here and here), but let’s save that discussion for another day.

What a recent twitter threat has reminded me is that there is a bigger downside to the existence of poor data than being unable to apply advanced big data analytics: the formulation of procurement policy on the basis of poor data and poor(er) statistical analysis.

This reflection emerged on the basis of the 2018 iteration of the Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement (the SMSPP), which is the closest the European Commission is getting to data-driven policy analysis, as far as I can see. The SMSPP is still work in progress. As such, it requires some close scrutiny and, in my view, strong criticism. As I will develop in the rest of this post, the SMSPP is problematic not solely in the way it presents information—which is clearly laden by implicit policy judgements of the European Commission—but, more importantly, due to its inability to inform either cross-sectional (ie comparative) or time series (ie trend) analysis of public procurement policy in the single market. Before developing these criticisms, I will provide a short description of the SMSPP (as I understand it).

The Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement: what is it?

The European Commission has developed the broader Single Market Scoreboard (SMS) as an instrument to support its effort of monitoring compliance with internal market law. The Commission itself explains that the “scoreboard aims to give an overview of the practical management of the Single Market. The scoreboard covers all those areas of the Single Market where sufficient reliable data are available. Certain areas of the Single Market such as financial services, transport, energy, digital economy and others are closely monitored separately by the responsible Commission services“ (emphasis added). The SMS organises information in different ways, such as by stage in the governance cycle; by performance per Member State; by governance tool; by policy area or by state of trade integration and market openness (the latter two are still work in progress).

The SMS for public procurement (SMSPP) is an instance of SMS by policy area. It thus represents the Commission’s view that the SMSPP is (a) based on sufficiently reliable data, as it is fed from the database resulting from the mandatory publications of procurement notices in the Tenders Electronic Daily (TED), and (b) a useful tool to provide an overview of the functioning of the single market for public procurement or, in other words of the ‘performance’ of public procurement, defined as a measure of ‘whether purchasers get good value for money‘.

The SMSPP determines the overall performance of a given Member States by aggregating a number of indicators. Currently, the SMSPP is based on 12 indicators (it used to be based on a smaller number, as discussed below): [1] Single bidder; [2] No calls for bids; [3] Publication rate; [4] Cooperative procurement; [5] Award criteria; [6] Decision speed; [7] SME contractors; [8] SME bids; [9] Procedures divided into lots; [10] Missing calls for bids; [11] Missing seller registration numbers; [12] Missing buyer registration numbers. As the SMSPP explains, the addition of these indicators results in the measure of ‘overall performance’, which

is a sum of scores for all 12 individual indicators (by default, a satisfactory performance in an individual indicator increases the overall score by one point while an unsatisfactory performance reduces it by one point). The 3 most important are triple-weighted (Single bidder, No calls for bids and Publication rate). This is because they are linked with competition, transparency and market access–the core principles of good public procurement. Indicators 7-12 receive a one-third weighting. This is because they measure the same concepts from different perspectives: participation by small firms (indicators 7-9) and data quality (indicators 10-12).

The most recent snapshot of overall procurement performance is represented in the map below, which would indicate that procurement policy is rather disfunctional—as most EEA countries do not seem to be doing very well.

Source: European Commission, 2018 Single Market Scorecard for Public Procurement (based on 2017 data).

Source: European Commission, 2018 Single Market Scorecard for Public Procurement (based on 2017 data).

In my view, this use of the available information is very problematic: (a) to begin with, because the data in TED can hardly be considered ‘sufficiently reliable‘. The database in TED has problems of various sorts because it is a database that is constructed as a result of the self-declaration of data by the contracting authorities of the Member States, which makes its content very dishomogeneous and difficult to analyse, including significant problems of under-inclusiveness, definitional fuzziness and the lack of filtering of errors—as recognised, repeatedly, in the methodology underpinning the SMSPP itself. This should make one take the results of the SMSPP with more than a pinch of salt. However, these are not all the problems implicit in the SMSPP.

More importantly: (b) the definition of procurement performance and the ways in which the SMSPP seeks to assess it are far from universally accepted. They are rather judgement-laden and reflect the policy biases of the European Commission without making this sufficiently explicit. This issue requires further elaboration.

The SMSPP as an expression of policy-making: more than dubious judgements

I already criticised the Single Market Scoreboard for public procurement three years ago, mainly on the basis that some of the thresholds adopted by the European Commission to establish whether countries performed well or poorly in relation to a given indicator were not properly justified or backed by empirical evidence. Unfortunately, this remains the case and the Commission is yet to make a persuasive case for its decision that eg, in relation to indicator [4] Cooperative procurement, countries that aggregate 10% or more of their procurement achieve good procurement performance, while countries that aggregate less than 10% do not.

Similar issues arise with other indicators, such as [3] Publication rate, which measures the value of procurement advertised on TED as a proportion of national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is given threshold values of more than 5% for good performance and less than 2.5% for poor performance. The Commission considers that this indicator is useful because ‘A higher score is better, as it allows more companiesto bid, bringing better value for money. It also means greater transparency, as more information is available to the public.’ However, this is inconsistent with the fact that the SMSPP methodology stresses that it is affected by the ‘main shortcoming … that it does not reflect the different weight that government spending has in the economy of a particular’ Member State (p. 13). It also fails to account for different economic models where some Member States can retain a much larger in-house capability than others, as well as failing to reflect other issues such as fiscal policies, etc. Moreover, the SMSPP includes a note that says that ‘Due to delays in data availability, these results are based on 2015 data (also used in the 2016 scoreboard). However, given the slow changes to this indicator, 2015 results are still relevant.‘ I wonder how is it possible to establishes that there are ‘slow changes’ to the indicator where there is no more current information. On the whole, this is clearly an indicator that should be dropped, rather than included with such a phenomenal number of (partially hidden) caveats.

On the whole, then, the SMSPP and a number of the indicators on which it is based is reflective of the implicit policy biases of the European Commission. In my view, it is disingenuous to try to save this by simply stressing that the SMSPP and its indicators

Like all indicators, however, they simplify reality. They are affected by country-specific factors such as what is actually being bought, 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 have been omitted entirely or covered only indirectly, e.g. corruption, the administrative burden and professionalism. So, although the Scoreboard provides useful information, it gives only a partial view of EU countries' public procurement performance.

I would rather argue that, in these conditions, the SMSPP is not really useful. In particular, because it fails to enable analysis that could offer some valuable insights even despite the shortcomings of the underlying indicators: first, a cross-sectional analysis by comparing different countries under a single indicator; second, a trend analysis of evolution of procurement “performance” in the single market and/or in a given country.

The SMSPP and cross-sectional analysis: not fit for purpose

This criticism is largely implicit in the previous discussion, as the creation of indicators that are not reflective of ‘country-specific factors such as what is actually being bought, the structure of the economies concerned, and the relationships between different tendering options’ by itself prevents meaningful comparisons across the single market. Moreover, a closer look at the SMSPP methodology reveals that there are further issues that make such cross-sectional analysis difficult. To continue the discussion concerning indicator [4] Cooperative procurement, it is remarkable that the SMSPP methodology indicates that

[In previous versions] the only information on cooperative procurement was a tick box indicating that "The contracting authority is purchasing on behalf of other contracting authorities". This was intended to mean procurement in one of two cases: "The contract is awarded by a central purchasing body" and "The contract involves joint procurement". This has been made explicit in the [current methodology], where these two options are listed instead of the option on joint procurement. However, as always, there are exceptions to how uniformly this definition has been accepted across the EU. Anecdotally, in Belgium, this field has been interpreted as meaning that the management of the procurement procedure has been outsource[d] (e.g. to a legal company) -which explains the high values of this indicator for Belgium.

In simple terms, what this means is that the data point for Belgium (and any other country?) should have been excluded from analysis. In contrast, the SMSPP presents Belgium as achieving a good performance under this indicator—which, in turn, skews the overall performance of the country (which is, by the way, one of the few achieving positive overall performance… perhaps due to these data issues?).

This should give us some pause before we decide to give any meaning to cross-country comparisons at all. Additionally, as discussed below, we cannot (simply) rely on year-on-year comparisons of the overall performance of any given country.

The SMSPP and time series analysis: not fit for purpose

Below is a comparison of the ‘overall performance’ maps published in the last five iterations of the SMSPP.

Source: own elaboration, based on the European Commission’s Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement for the years 2014-2018 (please note that this refers to publication years, whereas the data on which each of the reports is based corresponds to the previous year).

Source: own elaboration, based on the European Commission’s Single Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement for the years 2014-2018 (please note that this refers to publication years, whereas the data on which each of the reports is based corresponds to the previous year).

One would be tempted to read these maps as representing a time series and thus as allowing for trend analysis. However, that is not the case, for various reasons. First, the overall performance indicator has been constructed on the basis of different (sub)indicators in different iterations of the SMSPP:

  • the 2014 iteration was based on three indicators: bidder participation; accessibility and efficiency.

  • the 2015 SMSPP included six indicators: single bidder; no calls for bids; publication rate; cooperative procurement; award criteria and decision speed.

  • the 2016 SMSPP also included six indicators. However, compared to 2015, the 2016 SMSPP omitted ‘publication rate’ and instead added an indicator on ‘reporting problems’.

  • the 2017 SMSPP expanded to 9 indicators. Compared to 2016, the 2017 SMSPP reintroduced ‘publication rate’ and replaced ‘reporting problems’ for indicators on ‘missing values’, ‘missing calls for bids’ and ‘missing registration numbers’.

  • the 2018 SMSPP, as mentioned above, is based on 12 indicators. Compared to 2017, the 2018 SMSPP has added indicators on ‘SME contractors’, ‘SME bids’ and ‘procedures divided into lots’. It has also deleted the indicator ‘missing values’ and disaggregated the ‘missing registration numbers’ into ‘missing seller registration numbers’ and ‘missing buyer registration numbers’.

It is plain that there are no two consecutive iterations of the SMSPP based on comparable indicators. Moreover, the way that the overall performance is determined has also changed. While the SMSPP for 2014 to 2017 established the overall performance as a ‘deviation from the average’ of sorts, whereby countries were given ‘green’ for overall marks above 90% of the average mark, ‘yellow’ for overall marks between 80 and 90% of the average mark, and ‘red’ for marks below 80% of the average mark; in the 2018 SMSPP, ‘green’ indicates a score above 3, ‘yellow’ indicates a score below 3 and above -3, and ‘red’ indicates a score below -3. In other words, the colour coding for the maps has changed from a measure of relative performance to a measure of absolute performance—which, in fairness, could be more meaningful.

As a result of these (and, potentially, other) issues, the SMSPP is clearly unable to support trend analysis, either at single market or country level. However, despite the disclaimers in the published documents, this remains a risk (to the extent that anyone really engages with the SMSPP).

Overall conclusion

The example of the SMSPP does not augur very well for the adoption of data analytics-based policy-making. This is a case where, despite acknowledging shortcomings in the methodology and the data, the Commission has pressed on, seemingly on the premise that ‘some data (analysis) is better than none’. However, in my view, this is the wrong approach. To put it plainly, the SMSPP is rather useless. However, it may create the impression that procurement data is being used to design policy and support its implementation. It would be better for the Commission to stop publishing the SMSPP until the underlying data issues are corrected and the methodology is streamlined. Otherwise, the Commission is simply creating noise around data-based analysis of procurement policy, and this can only erode its reputation as a policy-making body and the guardian of the single market.


An incomplete overview of (the promises of) GovTech: some thoughts on Engin & Treleaven (2019)

I have just read the interesting paper by Z Engin & P Treleaven, 'Algorithmic Government: Automating Public Services and Supporting Civil Servants in using Data Science Technologies' (2019) 62(3) The Computer Journal 448–460, https://doi.org/10.1093/comjnl/bxy082 (available on open access). The paper offers a very useful, but somehow inaccurate and slightly incomplete, overview of data science automation being deployed by governments world-wide (ie GovTech), including the technologies of artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), big data, behavioral/predictive analytics, and blockchain. I found their taxonomy of GovTech services particularly thought-provoking.

Source: Engin & Treleaven (2019: 449).

Source: Engin & Treleaven (2019: 449).

In the eyes of a lawyer, the use of the word ‘Government’ to describe all these activities is odd, in particular concerning the category ‘Statutes and Compliance’ (at least on the Statutes part). Moving past that conceptual issue—which reminds us once more of the need for more collaboration between computer scientist and social scientists, including lawyers—the taxonomy still seems difficult to square with an analysis of the use of GovTech for public procurement governance and practice. While some of its aspects could be subsumed as tools to ‘Support Civil Servants’ or under ‘National Public Records’, the transactional aspects of public procurement and the interaction with public contractors seem more difficult to place in this taxonomy (even if the category of ‘National Physical Infrastructure’ is considered). Therefore, either additional categories or more granularity is needed in order to have a more complete view of the type of interactions between technology and public sector activity (broadly defined).

The paper is also very limited regarding LawTech, as it primarily concentrates on online dispute resolution (ODR) mechanisms, which is only a relatively small aspect of the potential impact of data science automation on the practice of law. In that regard, I would recommend reading the (more complex, but very useful) book by K D Ashley, Artificial Intelligence and Legal Analytics. New Tools for Law Practice in the Digital Age (Cambridge, CUP, 2017).

I would thus recommend reading Engin & Treleaven (2019) with an open mind, and using it more as a collection of examples than a closed taxonomy.

Governance, blockchain and transaction costs

Bitcoin Traces / Martin Nadal (ES)

Bitcoin Traces / Martin Nadal (ES)

Blockchain is attracting increasing attention as a new technology capable of ‘revolutionising’ governance, both in the private or public sector. In simple terms, blockchain is seen as an alternative to the way information is (securely) stored and rules are enforced, regardless of whether those rules are agreed in a contract, or result from legislation or administrative decision-making.

Some examples include the governance of illegal agreements to distort competition (cartels) (see eg this paper by Thibault Shrepel), or the management of public procurement (eg in this paper by Hardwick, Akram and Markantonakis, or these thoughts by Bertrand Maltaverne). These examples explore how the technology allows for the creation of ‘self-executing’ sets of rules that would be capable of overcoming so far intractable governance problems (mostly, about trust: eg among the cartellists, or in public officials).

This could create opposite effects in the governance of public procurement. For instance, this could make the detection and correction of bid rigging very difficult (if not impossible) or, conversely, allow for a corruption-free procurement architecture. Therefore, the impact of the technology (in principle neutral) on existing governance systems can ultimately be seen as an ‘arms race’ between the private and public sector as, ultimately, the one that gets ahead will be able to exploit the technology to its advantage.

This justifies some calls for both investment in new technologies by the public sector (as the private sector has its own incentives for investment), and regulation of private (and public) use of the technology. I have no objection to either of these recommendations. However, I think there is an important piece of the puzzle that tends to go missing in this type of analysis.

Indeed, most of this discussion brushes over the important limitations of smart contracts. These limitations are both linked to the fact that the computational logic underpinning smart contracts can only operate on the basis of complete information/rules, and that the computing power necessary to implement smart contracts can currently only process extremely simple contracts.

The latter issue may be dismissed as a mere ‘a matter of time’, but given that it has been estimated that it is currently only possible to create a blockchain-based procurement process capable of holding 700-word-long tender documentation (Hardwick, Akram and Markantonakis, 2018: 6), there seems to be a very long road ahead, even accepting Moore’s Law on the growth of computational power.

This first issue, though, is more difficult to set aside. As rightly stressed by Davidson, De Filippi and Potts in their ‘must read’ paper, ‘the obvious problem is that blockchains only work on complete contracts, whereas most in-the-world firms ... are largely (entirely?) made of incomplete contracts'; ‘a blockchain is an economic world of complete contracts’ (2016: 9).

In my view, this should raise significant doubts as to the likely extent of the ‘revolution’ that blockchain can create in complex settings where the parties structurally face incomplete information. Procurement is clearly one such setting. There are a few reasons for this, my top three being that:

  • First, the structural incompleteness of information in a setting where the public buyer seeks to use the public tender as a mechanism of information revelation cannot be overstated. If it is difficult for contracting authorities to design ‘sufficiently objective’ technical specifications and award criteria/evaluation methods, the difficulties of having to do so under the strictures of computational logic are difficult to imagine.

  • Second, the volume of entirely digital procurement (that is, the procurement of entirely digital or virtual goods and services) is bound to remain marginal, which creates the additional problem of connecting the blockchain to the real world, with all the fallibility and vulnerability that so-called oracles bring with them.

  • Third, blockchain technology in itself creates an additional layer of transaction costs—at least at the stage of setting up the system and ‘migrating’ to a blockchain-based procurement mechanism. Bearing in mind the noticeable and pervasive difficulties in the much simpler transition to e-procurement, this also seems difficult to overstate.

Therefore, while there will clearly be improvements in specific (sub)processes that can be underpinned by blockchain instead of other cryptographic/cybersecurity solutions, I remain quite skeptical of a blockchain-based revolution of procurement governance. It may be that I still have not advanced enough in my research to identify the 'magic technological solution’ that can do away with transaction costs, so any pointers would be most appreciated.

Procurement governance and complex technologies: a promising future?

Thanks to the UK’s Procurement Lawyers’ Association (PLA) and in particular Totis Kotsonis, on Wednesday 6 March 2019, I will have the opportunity to present some of my initial thoughts on the potential impact of complex technologies on procurement governance.

In the presentation, I will aim to critically assess the impacts that complex technologies such as blockchain (or smart contracts), artificial intelligence (including big data) and the internet of things could have for public procurement governance and oversight. Taking the main risks of maladministration of the procurement function (corruption, discrimination and inefficiency) on which procurement law is based as the analytical point of departure, the talk will explore the potential improvements of governance that different complex technologies could bring, as well as any new governance risks that they could also generate.

The slides I will use are at the end of this post. Unfortunately, the hyperlinks do not work, so please email me if you are interested in a fully-accessible presentation format (a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk).

The event is open to non-PLA members. So if you are in London and fancy joining the conversation, please register following the instructions in the PLA’s event page.

Changing directions -- new topics and new approach

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Dear How to Crack a Nut readers and friends,

It has been 9 months since the last post. I hope you have all been very well.

This has been a period full of happy news for me, as well as steep learning curves (nappies, feeding, identifying different types of crying, etc), very little and very interrupted sleep, and some time to reflect. It has also been a very distressing period due to the (lack of) Brexit developments,[1] which are increasingly keeping me awake at night. I hope that is not your case but, if it is, you have all my solidarity.

After a few internal fights and disagreements with myself, I have come to the realisation that it will not be possible to re-start the blog as it used to be. First because my new work/life balance seriously restricts the blogging time that I could fit into my working week—and, to be honest, the joy of rediscovering the world through the eyes of a 6-month old exceeds by several multiples that of any other potential uses of my free time.

Second, because now that I have finished a number of previous commitments[2] and found the time and energy to venture into a new research area, I have embarked on a new book project that moves away from the day-to-day commentary of case law and legal developments[3] and requires me to learn a great deal of new things about artificial intelligence, big data, smart contracts and the internet of things — to seek to understand their potential to improve the governance of public procurement. This requires my full attention span and I need to concentrate on this, at least for the remainder of the year of research leave that the University of Bristol Law School has generously given me. Maybe I will return to case law analysis when I am back to juggling teaching with research in January 2020.

I do not want to completely stop blogging, though, and I think there is scope to trial a reorientation of the blog. So, from now on, I will use it to reflect about my learning on ‘new technologies’ (such a nineties’ expression…) and procurement governance. This will hopefully serve as a springboard for new ideas and for exchanges about the ways in which we can re-imagine procurement practice and oversight on the basis of nascent applications of different modes of information processing. I hope you will find this of some interest.

All the best,
Albert
________

[1] And the few developments there have been are utterly depressing: see #Ferrygate. If the Withdrawal Agreement ever gets approved, then there will be relevant analysis in a forthcoming paper with Pedro Telles: ‘Brexit and Public Procurement: Transitioning into the Void?‘ [2019/2 European Law Review] and in my chapter ‘EU-UK Procurement-Based Trade Relations After Brexit: Some Thoughts‘, in F Kainer & R Repasi (eds), Trade Relations after Brexit: Impetus for the Negotiation Process (Nomos, 2019, forthc.). If not, this will have been a waste of time…
[2] Just before parental leave and/or at the start of research leave, I have completed papers on ‘Centralisation of Procurement and Supply Chain Management in the English NHS: Some Governance and Compliance Challenges‘ (2019) 70(1) NILQ 53-75; 'Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Their Difficult Balance', in K-M Halonen, R Caranta & A Sanchez-Graells (eds), Transparency in EU Procurements: Disclosure within Public Procurement and during Contract Execution, Vol. 9 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2019, forthc); as well as a paper about cross-border joint procurement under Art 39(4) Dir 2014/24/EU that is currently under peer-review (soon to be published on SSRN).
[3] Those interested will find revised views, a new introductory chapter and a comprehensive coverage of the 2015/17 case law in the recently published A Sanchez-Graells & C De Koninck, Shaping EU Public Procurement Law: A Critical Analysis of the CJEU Case Law 2015–2017 (Kluwer, 2018).

Bid rigging, self-cleaning, leniency and claims for damages: A beautiful procurement mess? (C-124/17)

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In his Opinion of 16 May 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:316 (not available in English), Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has offered an interesting view on the interpretation of the grounds for discretionary exclusion of economic operators engaged in bid rigging. In particular, his proposed interpretation concerns the limitations of the contracting authority's ability to demand full and unrestricted cooperation from undertakings seeking to reassure them that they have self-cleaned after participating in collusive practices in public markets. This Opinion and the forthcoming CJEU Judgment in Vossloh Laeis will be relevant for the interpretation of Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU, as well as Article 80 of Directive 2014/25/EU, on which the case rests. In my view, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion raises difficult questions about the coordination of enforcement of mechanisms to prevent bid rigging in the fields of public procurement and competition law. It also creates some functional tensions with recent cases such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469; and Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000. Thus, it deserves some close analysis.

Vossloh Laeis - Background

This case concerns the aftermath of an investigation into bid rigging practices by the German competition authority (Bundeskartellamt), which established that '[d]uring the period from 2001 to 2011 Vossloh Laeis concluded agreements with other companies on the supply of rails and switches to the detriment of local public transport companies, private, regional and industrial railway companies and construction companies. The aim of the agreements was to divide up tenders and projects among the members of the cartel'. This resulted in the imposition of a fine of just under 3.5 million euros on the company Vossloh Laeis in 2016 by the Bundeskartellamt.

In the case that triggered the reference to the CJEU, a contracting entity whose procurement is covered by Directive 2014/25/EU (Stadwerke München) sought to exclude Vossloh Laeis from its qualification system on the basis that it had been fined for its participation in the cartel. It is important to stress that the relevance of the cartel for Stadwerke München was not simply remote or theoretical, but concerned it rather closely because this entity had been a victim of the anticompetitive practices carried out by Vossloh Laeis. This led Stadwerke München to seek damages compensation from Vossloh Laeis in civil litigation, as well as to exclude it from its list of approved contractors.

Vossloh Laeis sought to resist its exclusion from Stadwerke München's qualification system on the basis that it had taken self-cleaning measures and should thus be reinstated in the list of approved contractors on the basis of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24, to which the applicable Article 80 of Directive 2014/25 refers. In particular, Vossloh Laeis sought to persuade the contracting entity that it had taken organizational and personnel measures to clarify the facts and prevent their future repetition. It also indicated that it would compensate the damage caused by its illicit behavior. 

Stadwerke München rejected the claims of self-cleaning on the basis that (i) despite the uncovering of the cartel in 2011, Vossloh Laeis had not addressed the contracting entity or undertaken any initiative to clarify the facts as a whole; (ii) only in 2016 had Vossloh Laeis ceased to deny, in front of Stadwerke München, its participation in the relevant collusive practices, and even then it stressed that it had challenged the decision imposing the fine. Most importantly, Stadwerke München took issue with Vossloh Laeis' behaviour because (iii) it had not agreed to furnish a copy of the Bundeskartellamt's decision imposing the fine, so that Stadwerke München could examine it. Neither did Vossloh Laeis agree to cooperate with Stadwerke München in clarifying the infringement committed, since it understood that his cooperation with the competition authority was sufficient.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion states that '[t]he referring court does not dispute (as it was stated in the sanctioning decision itself) that Vossloh Laeis had collaborated continuously and without restrictions with the German competition authority during the infringement procedure procedure' (para 17, own translation from Spanish). This creates a situation that may seem difficult to understand. Why would an undertaking that has already cooperated unreservedly with the competition authority not take the same approach to cooperation with the contracting entity? Is it a matter of opposition to red tape and duplication of effort? Or is there any secret that the economic operator is seeking to protect? Equally, on the side of the contracting entity, why is it so interested in the nitty-gritty details of the decision imposing the fine? Could it not just accept that the economic operator was sanctioned and is now trying to move on?

The importance of leniency programmes in this context

Even if the Opinion of AG Campos does not mention this at all, the dispute about access to the Bundeskartellamt's decision and Vossloh Laeis' refusal to cooperate with Stadwerke München in a parallel clarification of the facts needs to be placed in the context of the applicable leniency programme run by the Bundeskartellamt, and the civil litigation around the action for damages against Vossloh Laeis. This is important to understand the position of the parties, as well as the shadows that loom over the approach taken by AG Campos (discussed below).

As part of a leniency programme (not only Bundeskartellamt's, but those run by the contracting authorities of other Member States and the European Commission itself), economic operators that have participated in bid rigging offences can seek an exemption or reduction of the fines that would otherwise be applicable if they uncover the cartel and/or cooperate with the competition authority in its investigation (the degree of cooperation and the relevance of the information provided determining the level of 'discount' on the otherwise applicable fine).

In return for their cooperation, cartellists not only benefit from exemption or reduction of the fines, but also from some protection against claims for damages by the victims of their collusive behaviour. Indeed, competition authorities will take measures to ensure that leniency statements are not disclosed to the public, will include minimal parts of them in their final decisions imposing fines, and will redact relevant material from the public version of those decisions. This makes it virtually impossible for 'outsiders' to learn about the detailed ways in which the cartel functioned on the basis of public information resulting from the infringement procedure. Moreover, leniency programmes are specially protected by the Directive on competition damages (2014/104/EU), which requires Member States to ensure that 'for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts cannot at any time order a party or a third party to disclose ... leniency statements' (Art 6(6)(a)) (see also the position of the CJEU here).

This creates significant difficulties in the context of follow-on damages actions, where the previous investigation by the competition authority is of no avail to victims seeking redress. This would explain why Stadwerke München insisted in having access to the confidential version of the decision imposing a fine, and why Vossloh Laeis resisted such disclosure. It also clarifies how, in this specific context, cooperation with the competition authority is of no use to contracting entities and authorities seeking to understand the behaviour of the economic operator, as the opacity surrounding leniency programmes prevents them from benefiting from the investigation and findings of the competition authority. 

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in its own terms

In own terms, the Opinion of AG Campos seems to be solely based on the conceptual premise that the dispute between Stadwerke München and Vossloh Laeis resulted not from the background discussed above, but rather from the peculiarity of the German rules that transposed Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which required that, for the purposes of self-cleaning, economic operators must demonstrate that they have 'fully clarified the facts and circumstances by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and the contracting authority' (Art 125(1)(2) Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen, as reported in para 10 of the Opinion). This deviates from the literal wording of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which foresees that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has ... clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities'. The analysis in the Opinion, thus, largely rests on the interpretation of the concept of 'investigating authorities' in Article 57(6) with the purpose of establishing whether it covers the contracting authority or entity itself (see para 2). The Opinion offers a good synthesis of the competing arguments in paras 26-36.

In that regard, the Opinion provides some relevant positions. First, that the requirements explicitly listed in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU are mandatory and, consequently, contracting authorities and entities cannot accept claims of self-cleaning that do not meet them all (paras 40-41). Therefore, establishing the scope of the duty of collaboration in the clarification of the facts becomes paramount because its breach determines the impossibility of benefiting from any other self-cleaning measures adopted.

Second, on the specific issue of the entities included in the concept of 'investigating authorities', AG Campos takes the view that, despite the fact that Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU grants contracting authorities and entities some investigative powers, 'the exercise of these functions does not make the contracting authority one of the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57 (6), second paragraph of Directive 2014/24' (para 47, own translation from Spanish). In addition to other functional reasons on the way contracting authorities carry out their limited investigation for the purposes  of establishing the existence of an exclusion ground (paras 48-50), AG Campos concludes that, in general terms, 'the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57, paragraph 6, second paragraph, of Directive 2014/24 will not coincide with the contracting authorities. In front of the latter, the tenderer (or the company that aspires to be part of a classification system, as in this case) must prove that it has actively and thoroughly collaborated with the investigating authorities to clarify the facts. But this collaboration must be, by force, with an institution other than the contracting authority itself: otherwise, [the collaboration] would be, for the latter, a notorious fact that does not require any proof' (para 51, own translation from Spanish).

Finally, AG Campos also rejects the possibility for Member States to go beyond the scope of the collaboration foreseen in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU in demanding that the economic operator seeking to benefit from its self-cleaning efforts not only collaborates with the 'investigating authorities' but also with the contracting authority or entity (paras 55-61). Interestingly, AG Campos stresses two main issues against this possibility: (i) that it would create a duplication of obligations required against those who, like the investigating authorities and the contracting authorities, perform different functions and (ii) that it 'could place the economic operator in a situation close to defenselessness when, in circumstances such as those in this case, the contracting authority claims to have suffered damages, because of the infringing conduct that led to the exclusion of [the economic operator], for which it requests compensation' (para 60, own translation from Spanish).

It is worth stressing that the case also concerns issues surrounding the maximum period of exclusion of economic operators that cannot benefit from self-cleaning (paras 62-86). However this post concentrates solely on the interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

In my view, the Opinion of AG Campos advances a plausible interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU. However, I would disagree with two issues. First, the fact that Member States cannot go beyond the minimum mandatory self-cleaning requirements established in the Directive on the grounds that this would result in a duplication of effort for economic operators does not make sense to me, in particular after the recent CJEU Judgment in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (see comment here), which AG Campos acknowledges but sets aside in his Opinion (para 57). Second, and more importantly, I think that the Opinion of AG in Vossloh Laeis does not work in the context of infringements of competition law covered by leniency programmes, which triggers the second of the arguments against an expansive functional interpretation of Article 57(6) on the grounds of the undertaking's procedural rights.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in the broader context of leniency programmes

Indeed, the main difficulty I have with the AG Opinion in Vossloh Laeis is functional. It is worth stressing that the implication of this Opinion is that a contracting entity or authority that knows that it has been the victim of a cartel offence cannot oppose self-cleaning of the competition law violator on the basis of its lack of cooperation, despite being in litigation with that undertaking over damages compensation. From the perspective of the infringer, this also means that participation in a leniency programme not only provides a shield from administrative fines and some protection from actions for damages, but also some protection from exclusion from procurement procedures. These are two negative results from the perspective of ensuring the effectiveness of competition law in public procurement markets and, in my view, runs against the thrust of previous decisions such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (see comment here).

I also think that the way in which the Vossloh Laeis Opinion frames the issue of defenselessness is artificial. An economic operator that has infringed competition law and received a reduced fine as a result of its leniency application has already obtained a relevant practical advantage. Therefore, I see no problem in making it face a simple choice between either (i) sticking to the secrecy created by the leniency mechanism and thus accepting exclusion from procurement procedures for an adequate period of time, or (ii) waiving that secrecy vis-a-vis the contracting authority (which would implicitly require compensation of the damage resulting from the cartel), so that the contracting authority can form an adequate view of whether the organisational and personnel self-cleaning measures really address the root causes of the past illegal behaviour and, if appropriate, set aside the relevant exclusion ground.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion allows the economic operator to avoid this simple choice and to have two bites at the cherry. It also makes it difficult for the contracting authority to satisfactorily carry our its limited investigative functions under Art 57(6). Without knowing exactly what happened, it is difficult to judge whether the self-cleaning measures are 'appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct'. Additionally, it forces the contracting authority to make this decision in a context where it can have other grounds to doubt the economic operators' loss of integrity, such as its resistence to provide damages compensation despite having engaged in illegal behaviour that damaged the contracting authority's interests.

Ultimately, if AG Campos was worried about the existence of a conflict of interest between the contracting authority that has an outstanding claim for damages and at the same time needs to assess the self-cleaning efforts of the economic operator--which is a fair enough point--it would have been interesting to learn about the ways in which Article 24 of Directive 2014/24/EU needs to be applied and interpreted in situations such as this. It would have also been interesting to explore in more detail the extent to which the discrete requirements for satisfactory self-cleaning in Article 57(6) interact as, in the case of leniency-related situations, the lack of collaboration with the contracting authority or entity has a bearing on the extent to which the economic operator can be seen to have 'undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct'. 

However, by not addressing these issues, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion seems to seek to protect the effectiveness of leniency programmes without even mentioning them, which in my view is an odd position to take.

The false promise of e-procurement portals? A comment on Yukins & Ramish (2018) from a European perspective

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In a very thought-provoking recent paper*, Chris Yukins and Dan Ramish discuss two proposed reforms of US defence procurement law that would reduce access to bid protest mechanisms as an (unintended) consequence of efforts to streamline procurement on the basis of new (?) technologies. They concentrate, in particular, on the proposal to 'launch a pilot program to allow federal officials to buy directly from electronic portals [which] could—depending on its implementation—allow procurements to bypass the normal public solicitation process, and foreclose pre-award protests [the 'section 846 proposal']. The second set of proposals [... the 'section 809 proposal' ...] might radically streamline off-the-shelf purchasing, which again could make pre-award protests practically impossible' (p 4).

In simple terms, Yukins and Ramish analyse the impact that direct access to e-procurement portals could have for the system of checks and balances resulting from bid protest possibilities. As they put it, '[a]s a practical matter, if either initiative ... ultimately means that federal officials will be allowed to purchase commercially available goods and services directly from commercial electronic marketplaces without the prior publication normally required ..., that streamlined procedure could exempt billions of procurement dollars from accountability in the bid protest process. That, in turn, could have serious consequences, only some of which are fully foreseeable' (p 5).

Their paper provides an excellent overview of the relevance of bid protest (or procurement challenge) mechanisms for the proper functioning of the procurement function. It also stresses the relevance that review procedures have in international law--and in particular for the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, and the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA)--which is particularly relevant in the context of the on-going Brexit process (for discussion, see P Telles & A Sanchez-Graells, 'Examining Brexit Through the GPA's Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?' (2017) 47(1) PCLJ 1-33).

Maybe of even more interest, Yukins and Ramish raise very important points about the potential unintended consequences of the implementation of a policy that relied on e-procurement portals or an e-marketplace for the public sector in terms of the incentives for the exercise of administrative discretion. In their view

Because of the important protections they provide against error and corruption, bid protests have been adopted across the U.S., and indeed around the world (p 1, emphasis added).

... bid protests ... give vendors competing in international procurement markets a means of challenging unfair barriers to competition (p 2, emphasis added).

If the [section 846 proposal] results in direct purchases from electronic portals (thus in practice exempting an entire phase of procurement from protest), these changes would make it easier for officials to indulge in pre-award discrimination and could pose serious questions ... (p 4, emphasis added).

These considerations are best understood under the framework of Yukins' previous work on agency theory and procurement [see 'A Versatile Prism: Assessing Procurement Law Through the Principal-Agent Model' (2010) 40 PCLJ 63-86]. From that perspective, it is clear that pre-award bid protests serve as both a mechanism to incentivise and to discipline the public buyer as an agent. It creates incentives to design the procurement properly and in a pro-competitive manner to avoid the delays implicit in bid protests, as well as to achieve best value for money (which is the prime concern the procuring agent should have, and which an adequate system of rewards and performance evaluation should support). It also deters improper conduct through the threat of litigation (and, potentially, personal liability, depending on the specific features of the bid protest system, and the criminalisation of corrupt practices).

In short, bid protest mechanisms serve to improve the quality of procurement--in particular, through incentives to carry out market research prior to the launch of a procurement procedure--and its probity and integrity--through mechanisms to challenge discrimination and corrupt practices. Ultimately, then, the existence of bid protest mechanisms is in the public interest--even if they are engaged by private actors (disappointed bidders), acting as private attorney general. This does not detract from the need to design the bid protest mechanism in a way that weeds out spurious litigation. However, as a matter of principle, agency theory supports that having a bid protest mechanism is better than not having it.

Against this backdrop, it seems obvious that a suppression of the possibility of pre-award bid protest will erode public interest by creating a risk of both lower quality procurement design and diminished procurement probity. Whether these increased risks are countered by the practical advantages derived from streamlined e-procurement practices may be controversial. However, in the absence of evidence about the redundancy of bid protest mechanisms, and in view of the functional role they serve, I happily sit with Yukins' and Ramish's call not to suppress them in the name of (theoretical) procedural expeditiousness.

The risk of allowing contracting authorities to simply go to the (e)market is that it (re)creates the same problems of misuse of public funds that procurement rules are there to minimise. In every conversation about public procurement, the question arises what are these rules for, and the answer ends up converging towards: 'competition, transparency, and integrity', as proxies to promote value for money and probity [see S Schooner 'Desiderata: Objectives for a System of Government Contract Law' (2002) 11 PPLR 103]. The difficulty with the use of an e-marketplace for public buyers is that, either it is created within the same system of checks and balances of the procurement rules, or the procurement function will be exposed to the shortcomings of inadequate or limited competition (in particular if the gatekeeper of the e-market has a way of extracting rents from willing suppliers) and discrimination or corruption (if there is the possibility for either the gatekeeper or the agent, ie the public buyer, to appropriate rents). More importantly, the monitoring of the 'quality of the marketplace' and its integrity will be eroded by the suppression of the specific mechanisms included in procurement regulation--possibly leaving it all to antitrust/competition law, with its notorious shortcomings in addressing similar issues in platform markets with strong potential for innovation. On the whole, then, the risks created by unbridled access to e-markets are not different from the risks of uncontrolled access to standard markets that justified the emergence of procurement law centuries ago.

In the context of European procurement law, I think that this is an important reflection to engage with. A move towards e-procurement portals and off-the-shelf purchasing would, as things stand and in principle, require the existence of procurement challenge mechanisms at the point of setting up those mechanisms--either as framework agreements or dynamic purchasing systems, or as a result of the intervention of a centralised purchasing body tasked with the creation (and operation) of the e-marketplace. However, there have been recent developments that jeopardise this position, such as the contraction of the concept of procurement in Falk Pharma and Tirkkonen, or the underlying problem that led to the regulation of the activities of 'separate operational units' within a contracting authority for the purposes of value aggregation. These issues raise important questions as to whether the evolution of EU procurement (case) law is also creating an (inadvertent) threat of erosion of the quality and probity of the system whereby public funds are channelled towards the meeting of needs in the public interest.

* C R Yukins & D Ramish, 'Section 809 and "E-Portal" Proposals, by Cutting Bid Protests in Federal Procurement, Could Breach International Agreements and Raise New Risks of Corruption' (2018) 60 GOV’T CONTRACTOR ¶ 138. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3176223.

A Duty to ‘Save’ Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? -- New SSRN paper

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I have published a short paper commenting on the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU  through the 2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. I think this is an interesting case study on some of the difficulties that the new provision on the contracting authority's power to seek clarifications can pose in practice--and maybe anticipates some of the future challenges in the development of the Slovensko-Manova-Archus and Gama case law. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

This paper provides a critical assessment of the rules regarding the clarification, supplementation and correction of tenders in procedures for the award of public contracts regulated by the EU 2014 Public Procurement Package. It does so through a detailed assessment of the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU by means of the post-2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. The paper concentrates on four main issues: the existence of a mere discretionary power or a positive duty to seek clarifications, corrections or supplementations of tenders and their accompanying documentation; the constraints imposed on such power or duty; the desirability of unilateral tender corrections by the contracting authority; and the transparency given to the correction, supplementation or clarification of tenders. The paper assesses each of these issues against the backdrop of the existing case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, as well as with a functional approach to the operationalisation of the Portuguese rules on correction, supplementation and clarification of tenders for public contracts.

The paper is freely downloadable from SSRN: A Sanchez-Graells, 'A Duty to "Save" Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? - Comments on Art 72 of the 2017 Portuguese Code of Public Contracts' (2018) 2 Revista de Direito Administrativo 59-68.

'Certain cross-border interest' for a public contract cannot be purely hypothetical (C-486/17)

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I am currently-re-reading all CJEU procurement decisions of 2015, 2016 and 2017 for a new book that will consolidate and revise the comments published in this blog and in other papers (more details on this soon), as well as new comments on those cases I did not manage to cover at the time (there are 10 of those). Doing that, I came upon the Order of 23 November 2017 in Olympus Italia, C-486/17, EU:C:2017:899 (only available in FR and IT), which I find interesting because it reinforces the Tecnoedi approach to the burden of proof of the existence of a 'certain cross-border interest' that engages the CJEU's jurisdiction to provide the relevant interpretation of EU public procurement law (for discussion, see here).

In Olympus Italia, the CJEU was sent a request for interpretation of Directive 2014/24/EU and, in particular, in relation to the regulation of negotiated procedures and the possibility for tenderers to amend their tenders in that context. However, the CJEU rejected the request on the basis that the referring court had provided insufficient information to establish the existence of a certain cross-border interest in a contract for an "all-hazards" technical assistance service for flexible endoscopes and machines used for washing such devices. 

As justification for the rejection of the case, the CJEU stressed that

... the objective criteria which may indicate certain cross-border interest ... may be, in particular, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out or the technical characteristics of the contract and the specific characteristics of the products concerned. In that context, it is also possible to take account of the existence of complaints brought by operators situated in other Member States, provided that it is determined that those complaints are real and not fictitious...

...  a conclusion that there is certain cross-border interest cannot be inferred hypothetically from certain factors which, considered in the abstract, could constitute evidence to that effect, but must be the positive outcome of a specific assessment of the circumstances of the contract at issue. More particularly, the referring court may not merely submit to the Court of Justice evidence showing that certain cross-border interest cannot be ruled out but must, on the contrary provide information capable of proving that it exists ...

In the present case, it is common ground, that the amount of the public contract at issue in the main proceedings amounts to EUR 85,000, which is considerably below the thresholds for application laid down in Article 4 of Directive 2014/24 ... On the other hand, in its reference for a preliminary ruling, the referring court has not provided any information enabling the Court to ... demonstrate the existence of a certain cross-border interest ... In those circumstances, the Court finds itself unable to provide a useful answer to the question raised... (C-486/17, paras 17-22, references omitted, own translation from French and emphasis added).

I find the Olympus Italia case interesting (and potentially worrying) if it is indicative of the willingness of the CJEU to avoid answering preliminary references on the basis of the absence of irrefutable proof of the existence of cross-border interest. I think that there have been plenty other cases where the CJEU was unable to establish this and, in any case, it provided an answer on the premise that the referring court would first have to assess whether such cross-border interest existed (for recent examples, see eg the 2015 Judgments in UNIS, C-25/14, EU:C:2015:821; or Enterprise Focused Solutions, C-278/14, EU:C:2015:228). If the CJEU is using the (evidence of the) existence of a certain cross-border interest as a 'docket-management' device, we can only expect further distortions of the case law in an area that is not precisely clear...

No obligation to revise prices payable under public contracts. OK, but for the wrong reasons? (C-152/17)

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In its recent Judgment of 19 April 2018 in Consorzio Italian Management e Catania Multiservizi,
C-152/17, EU:C:2018:264, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified that EU public procurement law (in this case, the 2004 Utilities Directive) does not create an obligation to review prices after the award of a public services contract. This seems largely uncontroversial, not least due to the lack of concern of the pre-2014 EU procurement rules with contract execution. However, the reasons given by the CJEU to exclude mandatory price revision and, beyond that, the mistrust it places on price review clauses, are dubious. The way in which the CJEU refers back to Finn Frogne (see here) should also set off some alarm bells.

The case at hand (N.B. Defective English version of the Judgment)

In this case, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI) had awarded a services contract to Consorzio Italian Management and Catania multiservizi (CIMCM) for the cleaning, maintenance and ancillary services at stations, installations, offices and workshops at various sites throughout the region of Cagliari. The contract included a clause limiting price review. Despite that, and as a result of increasing staff costs, CIMCM requested RFI to review the prices payable under the contract (ie the claim seemed to be a statutory claim contra the explicit terms of the public contract). RFI rejected the request for the price revision, which triggered the underlying dispute. Establishing the legal architecture underlying the claim requires some legal funambulism.

The award of the contract had been subject to the rules of the 2004 Utilities Directive, as well as domestic law transposing it. At the relevant time, the Italian procurement code (Legislative Decree No 163/2006) established that in 'the absence of any express provisions' in the procurement rules, the Italian Civil Code (Codice Civile, CC) would provide default rules for contractual arrangements between contracting authorities or entities and their contractors. It is important to clarify that the Italian procurement code had a two-tier approach whereby it established a full regime applicable to general procurement (tier 1) and then specified a sub-set of rules applicable to utilities procurement (tier 2, Art 206 Legislative Decree No 163/2006). Tier 2 set a numerus clausus of provisions applicable to contracts linked to the activities referred to in Articles 3 to 7 of the 2004 Utilities Directive.

Concerning the review of contractual prices, Art 115 of the Italian procurement code established that '[a]ll contracts for the supply of goods or services on an ongoing basis must include a clause providing for periodic review of the price'. This provision was however inapplicable to public contracts in the utilities sectors [N.B. despite the English version of the Judgment (para 11), where it is indicated that 'Article 115 of that Legislative Decree was one of the provisions which, under Article 206 thereof, were applicable to public contracts', this is contradicted by eg the French ('L’article 115 de ce décret législatif ne figurait pas ...') and Italian ('L’articolo 115 di tale decreto legislativo non era indicato ...') versions of the Judgment, as well as the logic of the decision]. It is thus worth taking into account that, where Art 115 was not applicable, the default rule in the Italian Civil Code would provide for price revision linked to circumstances of 'hardship' (ie cost increases above 10% of the overall price agreed; Article 1664 CC).

The dispute between CIMCM and RFI is fundamentally concerned with a domestic issue of contractual and statutory interpretation. However, given that the scope of application of the domestic rules is pegged to the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive, it acquired EU relevance.

At first instance, the challenge was dismissed by the regional administrative tribunal on the basis that 'the supply of cleaning services at stations, installations, offices and workshops was ancillary to the performance of activities covered by special sectors, in that those services related to elements forming an essential part of the rail transport network' (C-152/17, para 16, emphasis added). This justified the subjection of the contract to the tier 2 procurement regime, and thus excluded the mandatory price review clause of Art 115 of the Italian procurement code. Beyond that, the regional administrative court reached the additional finding that 'price review was not mandatory under Article 1664 of the Civil Code, as the parties to a contract may derogate from that provision by inserting in the contract a contract term limiting price review, which was the case in the main proceedings' (ibid). 

Given the implicit reference to Art 5 of the 2004 Utilities Directive in terms of scoping the applicability of the relevant rules, which was challenged in the appeal of the first instance decision, the dispute required clarification from the CJEU. Moreover, the claimants raised a challenge of validity against the 2004 Utilities Directive by arguing that, should it allow for the award of contracts excluding price revision, it would infringe Articles 3(1) TEU, Articles 26, 56 to 58 and 101 TFEU, and Article 16 of the Charter, ‘in the light of the unfairness, disproportionality and distortion of contractual balance and, therefore, of the rules governing an efficient market’ (C-152/17, para 19). The reasoning of the CJEU on these two matters (scope of application and validity of the 2004 Utilities Directive) is interesting.

Functional scope of application

The issue here seems simply to require an understanding of the functional approach followed b y the CJEU in determining the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive. In that regard, the CJEU stressed that

... as regards the interpretation of Directive 2004/17 and of the underlying general principles, the referring court considers that the contract at issue in the main proceedings falls within the scope of that directive, since it was awarded by a contracting authority within the meaning of that directive, namely RFI, and that it is functionally linked to rail transport operations falling within the scope of that directive.

In that regard, it follows from the Court’s case-law that Directive 2004/17 in fact applies not only to contracts awarded in the sphere of one of the activities expressly listed in Articles 3 to 7 thereof, but also to contracts which, even though they are different in nature and could as such normally fall within the scope of Directive 2004/18/EC ..., are used in the exercise of activities defined in Directive 2004/17. Consequently, where a contract awarded by a contracting entity is connected with an activity which that entity carries out in the sectors listed in Articles 3 to 7 of that directive, that contract is subject to the procedures laid down in that directive (C-152/17, paras 25-26, references omitted and emphasis added).

This creates the functional criterion that ancillary activities are covered by the Utilities procurement regime because, as a matter of determining the scope of the activities listed in Arts 3 to 7 of Dir 2004/17, EU procurement law also comprises ancillary activities.

No 'EU law' obligation to revise prices

Beyond that, the CJEU also stressed that 

... it is not apparent from any provision of that directive that it must be interpreted as precluding rules of national law, such as Article 115, in conjunction with Article 206, of Legislative Decree No 163/2006, which do not provide for periodic review of prices after contracts are awarded in the sectors covered by the directive, since the latter does not impose any specific obligation on Member States to lay down provisions requiring the contracting entity to grant its contractual partner an upwards review of the price after the contract has been awarded (C-152/17, para 29, emphases added)

In my view, this is correct, and there is no question that the 2004 Utilities Directive did not create an 'EU law' obligation to include contract review clauses. However, the reasons given by the CJEU on the basis of the general principles of procurement should raise some eyebrows. Indeed, the CJEU found that

... the general principles underlying Directive 2004/17, in particular the principle of equal treatment and the consequent obligation of transparency enshrined in Article 10 of that directive do not preclude such rules either. On the contrary, it cannot be ruled out that a price review after the contract has been awarded may run counter to that principle and that obligation (see, by analogy, judgment of 7 September 2016, Finn Frogne, C‑549/14, EU:C:2016:634, paragraph 40). Indeed, as the Commission points out in its written observations, the contract price is an element of great importance in the assessment of tenders by a contracting entity, as well as in its decision to award the contract to an operator. This is also clear from the reference to the price in both of the criteria for the award of contracts mentioned in Article 55(1) of Directive 2004/17. In those circumstances, rules of national law which do not provide for periodic price review after the award of contracts in the sectors covered by that directive are, in fact, likely to encourage compliance with those principles.

It follows from those considerations that Directive 2004/17 and the general principles that underlie it are to be interpreted as not precluding national rules, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which do not provide for periodic price review after a contract has been awarded in the sectors covered by that directive (C-152/17, paras 30-31, emphases added).

Wrong reasons?

The reasoning of the CJEU is certainly hard to share, in particular in view of the precise reasoning of Finn Frogne--unless read in an extreme manner. It is also hard to reconcile with Art 72(1)(a) of Directive 2014/24 and Art 89(1)(a) of Directive 2014/25.

The reasoning of the CJEU is hard to reconcile with the fact that the relevant Italian rules (Art 115) established that price revision clauses had to be included in the relevant contract (but did not prescribe their content) and had to establish that the price 'revision shall be carried out on the basis of an investigation by the managers responsible for the acquisition of goods and services on the basis of the data' regulated in other parts of the Italian procurement code (C-152/17, para 11). How this is incompatible with Finn Frogne is beyond me, as the Court stated there that the position that 'following the award of a public contract, a material amendment cannot be made to that contract without a new tendering procedure ... would be different only if the contract documents provided for the possibility of adjusting certain conditions, even material ones, after the contract had been awarded and fixed the detailed rules for the application of that possibility' (C-549/14, para 40, emphasis added). Two thoughts come to mind here. First, that a review clause compliant with Art 115 of the Italian procurement code would meet precisely the requirements of Finn Frogne. Second, that the issue whether the exclusion or limitation of price review under the specific contract was allowable rested solely on the point of determination of the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive, so why did the CJEU feel the need to include this obiter dictum?

Looking forward, it is difficult to understand what the CJEU has in mind concerning equal treatment, transparency and price revision clauses. While in Finn Frogne --and, incidentally, in Art 72(1)(a) of Directive 2014/24 and Art 89(1)(a) of Directive 2014/25-- the position is that contractual price revision clauses are perfectly compliant with EU procurement rules and the principles of transparency and equal treatment; in Consorzio Italian Management the CJEU seems to be of the opposite view and stress that 'rules of national law which do not provide for periodic price review after the award of contracts ... are, in fact, likely to encourage compliance with those principles' (C-152/17, para 30). Of course, taken in isolation, both approaches make sense, but I would struggle to reconcile them if there was a claim that a contractual price revision clause was discriminatory because it either had different impact on different potential contractors, or because its interpretation could favour some suppliers over others. What is more objective, to have a contractual price review clause or not to have it? In addition, what is the problem with having legislative requirements for those clauses, as was the case in Art 115 of the Italian procurement code?

What about Art 16 of the Charter?

Another point worth mentioning is the CJEU's approach to the analysis of the compatibility of the inexistence of a right to price revision with Art 16 of the Charter, enshrining the freedom to conduct a business. Here, it would seem possible to expect from the CJEU an analysis of whether the inexistence of such a right as a matter of EU law is in compliance with the Charter. However, the CJEU refused to answer that question on the grounds that it was hypothetical (see paras 37-40). However, the CJEU did engage on the analysis of compatibility within the context of the first question, and almost as a matter of jurisdictional rather than substantive analysis. In that regard, the CJEU stressed that

... as regards the interpretation of Article 16 of the Charter, it must be recalled that, under Article 51(1) of the Charter, its provisions are addressed to the Member States only when they are implementing EU law. Under Article 51(2) of the Charter, the Charter does not establish any new power or task for the Union, or modify powers and tasks as defined in the Treaties. Accordingly, the Court is called upon to interpret EU law, in the light of the Charter, within the limits of the powers conferred on it ...

In that regard, it should be borne in mind that the concept of ‘implementing Union law’ within the meaning of Article 51 of the Charter presupposes a degree of connection between the measure of EU law and the national measure at issue. In particular, the Court has ruled that fundamental European Union rights could not be applied in relation to national legislation because the provisions of EU law in the area concerned did not impose any specific obligation on Member States with regard to the situation at issue in the main proceedings ...

In the present case, since it is apparent from paragraphs 29 and 30 above that neither Directive 2004/17 nor its underlying general principles impose on Member States a specific obligation to lay down provisions requiring the contracting entity to grant its contractual partner an upwards price review after the award of a contract, the provisions of Legislative Decree No 163/2006 at issue in the main proceedings, in so far as they do not provide for periodic price review within the sectors covered by that directive, do not have any connection with that directive and cannot, therefore, be regarded as implementing EU law (C-152/17, paras 33-35, references omitted and emphases added).

First, it is worth stressing that it is hard to imagine a legal strategy that will make the CJEU engage with the compatibility of secondary EU legislation with the Charter, in particular in relation to the absence of guarantees, as compared to its review concerning positive obligations for the addressees of the domestic implementing measures. Normatively, this is undesirable for the limited engagement the CJEU shows with substantive Charter-based analysis. And even from a positive perspective, this approach is criticisable. I find the CJEU's logic puzzling.

In a situation (maybe different from the case at hand, where the absence of the price revision guarantee ultimately results from a rule on the delimitation of applicable EU law regimes, rather than the direct implementation of a specific, single regime) where the claim was that the domestic rules implementing EU law failed to create a Charter-compliant (or rather Charter-mandated) guarantee not imposed by the implemented Directive, the CJEU would probably also take this route and argue that the absence of creation of an obligation at domestic level which is not required by EU rules is not connected with the EU rules in a manner that triggers the analysis of compatibility with the Charter. Would this make sense? I would not think so, but I guess we will have to wait for the relevant case to see whether the CJEU sticks to this analysis.