ECA's Special Report on access to EU Institutions' procurement: will it give a push to further reform?

On 13 July 2016, the European Court of Auditors published its Special Report No 17/2016 "The EU institutions can do more to facilitate access to their public procurement", where it examines how accessible the EU Institutions make their public contracts. I had the honour and pleasure of being invited to act as an academic expert during the preparation of this report, as well as to participate in a stakeholder meeting where the report was discussed with its main addressees, including the business community and the EU Institutions themselves. However, please note that the following only reflects my personal opinions about the report and any future developments.

To put the relevance of the report and the activities under investigation in perspective, it is worth stressing that the European Court of Auditors estimated the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions in 2014 in €4.2 bn. In particular, it is worth stressing that the European Commission manages just over €3 bn, while the Parliament and the European Central Bank manage €500 mn each, and the Council follows with more limited procurement activities of €171 mn.

These figures are important, particularly because they stress how the European Commission's procurement value exceeded that of some of the smaller Member States in 2014, such as Malta (€0.8 bn), Cyprus (€1.3 bn), Estonia (€2.5 bn) or Latvia (€2.7 bn); and the combined procurement of the EU Institutions also exceeded that carried out by Lithuania (€3.6 bn), and was very close to Bulgaria (€4.8 bn) and Slovenia (€4.9 bn). In my view, this indicates that the effects (positive or negative) of the regulation and development of public procurement by the EU Institutions should attract more attention than it usually does.

The report is generally positive on compliance issues, and it is clear that the European Court of Auditors takes no issue with the way in which the EU Institutions manage their procurement activities from a legal compliance perspective, since it found that 'the management and control arrangements were robust and reduced the risk of errors which could deter businesses from participating and prevent fair treatment'. However, the European Court of Auditors considered that the approach to procurement could be more strategic or market-oriented and, in particular, that EU Institutions could do more to facilitate SME access. 

In order to promote a more commercial approach to procurement, in particular, the European Court of Auditors included the following recommendations:

  1. In order to facilitate the monitoring of the accessibility of their procurement activities, all EU institutions should collect and analyse data both on the initial number of requests to participate and offers received and the number of offers which were taken into account for the final award decision.
  2. For the upcoming 2016 revision of the EU Financial Regulation the Commission should consolidate all relevant provisions into a single rulebook for public procurement. Participation of small and medium‑sized enterprises should be explicitly encouraged.
  3. The EU institutions should proactively use preliminary market consultations wherever appropriate with a view to preparing the procurement and informing economic operators of their procurement plans.
  4. The EU institutions should divide contracts into lots wherever possible to increase participation in their procurement procedures.
  5. The EU institutions should create a common electronic one‑stop shop for their procurement activities allowing economic operators to find all relevant information in a single online location and to interact with the EU institutions through this website.
  6. The Commission should propose a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated. Such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts.
  7. To allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts which could be developed as part of TED eTendering.
  8. The European Anti‑Fraud Office OLAF should produce reports and statistics on the different types of allegations under investigation and the outcome of these investigations.
  9. The EU institutions should use peer reviews for mutual learning and exchange of best practice.

Most of these recommendations are welcome and the European Court of Auditors should be encouraged to put some pressure on the EU Institutions, so that they materialise. There are, however, two recommendations that deserve some additional comments: recommendation 6 on remedies and recommendation 7 on the creation of a single public repository.

Recommendation #6 & EU Institution's resistance to facilitate review and flexible remedies

Given the reduced effectiveness of the informal resolution mechanisms provided by the European Ombudsman, which are significantly curtailed by the strictness of the procurement rules, and the cost and delay of challenging procurement decisions of the EU Institutions before the General Court (to these effects, see paras 76-88 of the report), it should come as no surprise that the European Court of Auditors recommended the creation of 'a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated', and that 'such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts'.

What is more surprising, or maybe not, is that both the Council and the Parliament decided to omit this recommendation from their replies to the report, and that the Commission expressly opposed it. Indeed, in its reply to the report, the Commission indicated that

As far as the EU institutions are concerned, the Commission considers that the setting-up of a non-judicial review body, in addition to the already existing review mechanism provided for in the Financial Regulation, is neither needed nor appropriate as it would generate disproportionate costs for the benefits sought.
The Financial Regulation already provides that the unsuccessful tenderers are notified of the grounds and details reasons for their rejection and they may request additional information ... Such requests are subject to a strict deadline: the contracting authority must provide this information as soon as possible and in any case within 15 days of receiving the request.
In addition, whenever an act adversely affecting the rights of the candidates or tenderers is notified to the economic operators in the course of a procurement procedure (e.g. rejection), such notification will refer to the available means of redress (Ombudsman complaint and judicial review).
The Commission considers that the limited number of actions before the General court which dealt with procurement by the Union institutions (17) and the fact that compensation for alleged damages is rarely granted by the Court are strong indicators that the system in place is efficient and fit for purpose. Hence, the setting up of the suggested rapid review is not only not needed but it would also represent a disproportionate measure, not in line with cost-efficiency and not a good use of administrative resources (reply to point 78 of the report, emphasis added).

This is surprising because the European Commission does not seem willing to apply to its own procurement activities the standards of independent review that it promotes for Member States. In my opinion, a domestic system could not avoid a serious investigation on the effectiveness of its procurement remedies system with the argument that there are very few cases and those are unsuccessful, not least because the general principle of EU law that requires effectiveness of remedies ultimately requires that the available remedies do not make it practically impossible to claim the corresponding EU rights, which could be the case here.

When the procurement cases in front of the General Court last on average 35 months (see para 82 of the report) and the cost of litigation at the highest EU level is taken into consideration, one should not be too ready to accept the Commission's submission that the reduced number of such cases indicates the lack of need for more accessible, speedier and more effective review mechanisms. Moreover, the creation of such an alternative mechanism could also contribute to reduce the pressures on the General Court's procurement docket and, in general, facilitate specialisation and more flexibility in the resolution of conflicts.

Thus, the blanket rejection of the recommendation by the Commission seems to require some rethinking, and it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, although this is an unlikely option for reasons that would take us too far from the discussion.

It is also important to stress that the creation of robust remedies mechanisms in public procurement (and in other areas of EU economic law) is not solely for the benefit of undertakings that partake in those procedures, but in the ultimate benefit of the taxpayer and society at large. In the case of procurement, if potential suppliers do not consider that they have a fair chance of protecting their interests, they will refrain from making investments in the submission of tenders. Such reduction of competition for public contracts carries an important implicit cost. Thus, aiming to save on direct administrative costs may well be self-defeating if this results in much larger shadow or indirect costs. This is not to mean that remedies should be promoted beyond the point necessary to ensure the integrity and probity of the procurement process, or that (generous or disproportionate) damages claims are the best way to ensure those remedies. What seems clear to me is that the issue of public procurement remedies under EU law requires further research and thought, and most certainly legal reform to adapt the existing system to the reforms of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. In that regard, it seems desirable for the Commission to carry on with the (seemingly abandoned) review of the Remedies Directive--and that such would be the ideal occasion to include the issue of remedies in the setting of EU Institutions' procurement in the proper considerations.

Recommendation #7 & risk of excessive procurement transparency

The second recommendation that deserves some comments is number 7, whereby the European Court of Auditors recommended that, in order to 'allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts'.

This raises, once more, the very tricky issue of the appropriate level of transparency of public procurement procedures and their outcomes, and the undesirable (unforeseen) effects that it can create. There is no doubt that the European Court of Auditors, like any audit body at national or international level, requires this information in order to discharge its functions. However, it is far from clear that there is a positive value in publishing all this information. While making this information public could contribute to some aspects of public governance (such as NGO and press scrutiny of these activities), it is by no means less clear that creating excessive transparency would contribute to anti-competitive strategies and potentially result in the cartelisation of public procurement markets.

In that regard, I would reiterate once more the need for a more nuanced approach to the compilation and publication of this type of information. 
As a functional criterion, only the information that is necessary to ensure proper oversight and the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures should be disclosed, whereas the information that can be most damaging for competition should be withheld. 

Generally, what is needed is more granularity in the levels of information that are made accessible to different stakeholders. The full transparency approach implicit in recommendation 7 of the European Court of Auditors' report, whereby all information is made available to everyone via a public registry or repository, falls very short from the desired balance between transparency and competition goals of public procurement. A system based on enabling or targeted transparency, whereby each stakeholder gets access to the information it needs for a specific purpose, is clearly preferable.

In more specific terms, the following normative recommendations should be subjected to further discussion in the roll-out of recommendation #7. They are by no means exhaustive and simply aim to specify the sort of nuanced approach to disclosure of public procurement information that is hereby advocated.

  • 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.