Study on administrative capacity to manage public procurement in the EU - some critical remarks on public procurement transparency

The European Commission has published the study 'Stock-taking of administrative capacity, systems and practices across the EU to ensure the compliance and quality of public procurement involving European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds' (PwC, Jan 2016), which offers an interesting perspective on the existing administrative capacity to manage public procurement in the EU. In its own terms, '[the] study offers a unique and unprecedented overview of the current state of administrative capacity in the field of public procurement in the EU with a special focus on the implementation of the European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds. It looks at the systems and structures in the individual Member States and provides valuable information as to how to improve the quality of public procurement and ensure more efficiency, transparency and regularity, in line with the Investment Plan for Europe and the EU budget focused on results initiative'.

The study has country-specific profiles with 'recommendations regarding specific needs identified in the 28 Member States and the areas where they could improve performance and effectiveness of public procurement benefiting from the cases of good practice contained in the study'. Such recommendations build up on a general section on 'good practices', where the study focuses on  seven categories of issues that PwC considers relevant for the proper administration of a well-functioning public procurement system, including:

  • Ad hoc support [to contracting authorities having issues with procurement rules or practice];
  • Guidance documents for contracting authorities;
  • Professionalisation of public procurement practitioners;
  • Initiatives which ensure the quality of public procurement;
  • Review processes;
  • Measures for simplification and efficiency;
  • Data monitoring and practices fostering transparency.

Some of these recommendations are already shaping EU policy in the public procurement field. In particular, the 'good practices' on ad hoc support are informing the Commission's project to set up and roll-out a 'voluntary ex ante assessment mechanism of the procurement aspects of certain large-scale infrastructure projects' (as included in the 2015 Strategy for the upgrade of the internal market), which may well result in the creation of a help-desk or hotline structured around the existing experiences in France, Slovenia, Finland of the Netherlands; see pp. 72-74 of the PwC report).

Similarly, the considerations around good practices concerning public procurement transparency (pp. 85-86) are also likely to inform the Commission's project to encourage Member States to create centralised public procurement registers as part of its commitment to pursue '[i]nitiatives for better governance of public procurement through the establishment of contract registers, improved data collection and a networking of review bodies' (as also included in the 2015 Strategy for the upgrade of the internal market; for discussion, see here and here). In that regard, it is worth looking closely at what the PwC report considers good practices in this area. According to the report,

The online publication of detailed and regularly updated public procurement data is a key component of an effective monitoring and transparency system. This can benefit to a wide range of stakeholders, from the public authorities who can use this data to monitor and evaluate their own purchasing activities to economic operators who can better assess the public sector markets. Besides, the publication of public procurement data also helps civil society groups to conduct their oversight activities on public spending.
Key success factors: Comprehensive and quality data covering various aspects of procurement (e.g. number, economic value, procedure); User-friendly and intuitive websites to easily access the data; Data made available online should be comparable, freely released, and downloaded in usable format; Regular update of the data published.

At this level of generality, the report is not massively useful because it leaves important issues of detail about the information to be published, whether access needs to be unrestricted and universal (I submit it should not) or different stakeholder should have access to different levels of information and at different times, etc. Moreover, the report makes some general statements that can be strongly contested. For instance, the report emphasises that

There is ... a benefit in collecting and publicising information not directly related to a specific procedure. For example, some [Member States], such as Latvia, Spain and Slovakia, require contracting authorities to publish pipelines of up-coming contracts, which can be invaluable tools for bidders to manage their businesses plans and prepare their most competitive officers. 

This is very problematic because this is the sort of excessive transparency that can easily result in cartelisation of (future) tender procedures and, in my view, there is no need whatsoever for this type of advance publication of contract opportunities if contracting authorities are willing to provide reasonable tender preparation times [for broader discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 73-75, and ibid., 'The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives' (2013)]. Thus, a more nuanced and careful consideration of these issues would be needed before simply presenting more transparency as always and intrinsically positive, and as a 'good practice' that should be disseminated throughout the 28 EU Member States--which it simply is not.

When it comes to the assessment of specific cases, the PwC report includes five short case studies in this area: Spain (Public Contracts Registry), Lithuania (Monitoring and publication of data on framework agreements), Slovenia ("Supervizor" transparency tool), Portugal (BASE Public Contracts Portal) and Slovakia (Single-stop online portal for public procurement analysis). All these case studies stress that publication of procurement information is positive, and indicate that there are issues of quality of the data published and of accessibility and machine-readability that need to be addressed. On the basis of that, the report goes on to recommend that Member States:

  • Integrate interoperability with the online publication system into the national eprocurement system so that the relevant data is automatically uploaded to the public website, minimising delays in publication;
  • Incorporate a comprehensive and user friendly search engine in any online database so that users can identify the information that is relevant to them;
  • Allow users to download search results in at least one commonly used and machine readable format such as CSV or Excel;
  • Contracting authorities should be required to submit preliminary data on upcoming projects, either via an annual procurement plan, or an advanced notification requirement for major and recurring contracts. 

I would personally take issue with the final recommendation and challenge it as an instance of detrimental public procurement practice. Elaborating a procurement is probably a good governance tool. Publishing it is a very ill-informed decision. Not in vain, one of the recommendations included in the OECD's Guidelines for Fighting Bid Rigging in Public Procurement (2009) is for contracting authorities to avoid predictability and, in particular, to '[a]void predictability in your contract requirements: consider aggregating or disaggregating contracts so as to vary the size and timing of tenders'.

Thus, engaging in the type of advanced disclosure advocated by the PwC report is simply contrary to this recommendation and creates excessive predictability and certainty of demand for both major and recurring contracts. Simply put, this is an ill-informed recommendation and one that the Commission and the Member States should ignore. It will be particularly important for this not to feed into the Commission's initiatives under the 2015 Strategy for the upgrade of the internal market. Any development of rules on public procurement registers needs to be much more nuanced and informed by economic theory.

In my view, the main normative recommendations (ie 'good practices') on which public procurement registers should be based are as follows:

  • Public contract registers should not be fully available to the public. Access to the full registry should be restricted to public sector officials under a strong duty of confidentiality protected by appropriate sanctions in cases of illegitimate disclosure.
  • Even within the public sector, access to the full register should be made available on a need to know basis. Oversight entities, such as the audit court or the competition authority, should have full access. However, other entities or specific civil servants should only access the information they require to carry out their functions.
  • Limited versions of the public contract registry that are made accessible to the public should aggregate information by contracting authority and avoid disclosing any particulars that could be traced back to specific tenders or specific undertakings.
  • Representative institutions, such as third sector organisations, or academics should have the opportunity of seeking access to the full registry on a case by case basis where they can justify a legitimate or research-related interest. In case of access, ethical approval shall be obtained, anonymization of data attempted, and specific confidentiality requirements duly imposed.
  • Delayed access to the full public registry could also be allowed for, provided there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that historic information does not remain relevant for the purposes of protecting market competition, business secrets and commercial interests.
  • Tenderers should have access to their own records, even if they are not publicly-available, so as to enable them to check their accuracy. This is particularly relevant if public contract registries are used for the purposes of assessing past performance under the new rules.
  • Big data should be published on an anonymised basis, so that general trends can be analysed without enabling ‘reverse engineering’ of information that can be traced to specific bidders.
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should regularly publish aggregated statistics by type of procurement procedure, object of contract, or any other items deemed relevant for the purposes of public accountability of public buyers (such as percentages of expenditure in green procurement, etc).
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should develop a system of red flag indicators and monitor them with a view to reporting instances of potential collusion to the relevant competition authority.

My full discussion and reasons for these recommendations are available here.