Public procurement digitalisation: A step forward or two steps back? [guest post by Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen]

In this guest post, Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen offers some exploratory thoughts on the digitalisation of public procurement, its difficulties and some governance and competition implications. This post is based on the presentation she gave at a Finnish legal research seminar “Oikeustieteen päivät”, Aalto University, on 28-29 September 2019.

Digitalisation of procurement - background and goals

Digitalisation and e-procurement are considered to enhance the efficiency of the procurement process in the EU’s internal market. In line with the European Commission’s 2017 Procurement Strategy, procurement digitalisation can unlock better and faster transparency across the internal market, thus ensuring the possibility for economic operators to become aware of business opportunities, the facilitation of access to public tenders and the dissemination of information on the conditions of the award of public contracts.

Beyond mere transparency gains, procurement digitalisation is also expected to Increase the integrity of the awarding process and the public officials involved, thus fostering corruption prevention and good administrative practices. Finally, digitalisation is also expected to open new, more efficient monitoring possibilities both before and after contract execution, as well as the deployment of advanced big data analytics.

Directive 2014/24/EU and procurement digitalisation

Digitalisation and e-procurement are some of the main goals of Directive 2014/24/EU. Since October 2018, these rules impose the mandatory use of electronic communications throughout the whole public contract award procedure (eCommunication), the submission of tenders in electronic form (eSubmission) and created detailed rules for procedures meant solely for eProcurement, as well as simplified information exchange mechanisms (such as the ESPD) to facilitate electronic processing of procurement information.

Although the digital requirements in the Directive do not yet cover pre-award market consultations or post-award contracts and contract amendments, there are some trends to indicate that these may be the next areas of digitalisation of procurement.

State of the art at Member State level

Many Member States have taken digitalisation and transparency in public procurement even further than the requirements of Directive 2014/24/EU. Many contracting authorities use eProcurement systems for the management of the entire life-cycle of the tendering process. In Finland, there is now consolidated experience with not only an eProcurement system, but also with an open access Government spend database. Similarly, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Poland have also created open access contract registers for all public contracts and contract amendments.

Additionally, many Member States are committed to wider transparency outside the procurement procedures. For example, there is an emerging practice of publication of pre-tendering market consultation documents or audio/video meeting records. It is also increasingly common to provide open access to contract performance documents, such as bills, payments and performance acceptance (eg the UK national action plan on open contracting).

Concerns and opportunities in the digitalisation of procurement

Given the current trends of development of digital procurement, it is necessary to reflect not only on the opportunities that the roll-out of these technologies creates, but also some concerns that arise from increased transparency and the implications of this different mode of procurement governance. Below are some thoughts on four interrelated dimensions: corruption, SME participation, adoption of blockchain-base and algorithmic tools, and competition for public contracts.

Corruption

Public Procurement and other commercial relationships (eg real estate development) between public and private sector are most vulnerable to corruption (as repeatedly stressed by the OECD, Transparency International, Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, etc). In that regard, it seems clear that the digitalisation of procurement and the increased transparency it brings with it can prevent corruption and boost integrity. Companies across the EU become aware of the contract award, so there is less room for national arrangements and protectionism. Digitalisation can make tendering less bureaucratic, thus lessening the need and room for bribes. eProcurement can also prevent (improper) direct communication between the contracting authority and potential tenderers. Finally, the mere existence of electronic documentation makes it easier to track and request documents at a later stage: illegal purchases are not that easy to “hide”.

Yet, even after the roll-out of electronic documentation and contract registers, there will remain issues such as dealing with receipts or fabricating needs for additional purchases, which are recurring problems in many countries. Therefore, while digitalisation can reduce the scope and risk of corruption, it is no substitute for other checks and balances on the proper operation of the procurement function and the underlying expenditure of public funds.

SME participation

One of the goals of Directive 2014/24/EU was to foster procurement digitalisation to facilitate SME participation by making tendering less bureaucratic . However, tendering is still very bureaucratic. Sometimes it is difficult for economic operators to find the “right” contracts, as it requires experience not only in identifying, but also in interpreting contract notices. Moreover, the effects of digitalisation are still local due to language barriers – eg in Finland, tendering documents are mostly in Finnish.

Moreover, the uncertainty of winning and the need to put resources into tendering are the main reasons for not-bidding by SMEs (Jääskeläinen & Tukiainen, 2018); and this is not resolved by digital tools. On the contrary, and in a compounding manner, SMEs can be disadvantaged in eProcurement settings. SMEs rarely can compete in price, but the use of e-procurement systems "favours" the use of a price only criterion (in comparison to price-quality-ratio) as quality assessment requires manual assessment of tenders. The net effect of digitalisation on SME participation is thus less than clear cut.

Blockchain-based and algorithmic tools

The digitalisation of procurement creates new possibilities for the use of algorithms: it opens endless possibilities to implement algorithmic test for choosing “the best tender” and to automate the procurement of basic products and services; it allows for enhanced control of price adjustments in e-catalogues (which currently requires manual labor); and it can facilitate monitoring: eg finding signs for bid rigging, cartels or corruption. In the future, transparent algorithms could also attack corruption by minimizing or removing human participation from the course of the procurement procedure.

Digitalisation also creates possibilities for using blockchain: for example, to manage company records, official statements and documents, which can be made available to all contracting authorities across EU. However, this also creates risks linked to eg EU wide blacklists: a minor infringement in one Member State could lead to the economic operator’s incapability of participating in public tenders throughout the EU.

The implications of the adoption of both algorithmic and blockchain-based tools still requires further thought and analysis, and this is likely to remain a fertile area for practical experimentation and academic debate in the years to come.

Competition

Open public contract registers have become a part of public procurement regime in EU Member States where corruption is high or with a tradition of high levels of public sector transparency. The European Commission is pushing for their creation in all EU jurisdictions as part of its 2017 Procurement Strategy. These contract registers aim to enhance integrity of the procurement system and public official and to allow public scrutiny of public spending by citizens and media.

However, these registers can facilitate collusive agreements. Indeed, easier access to detailed tendering information facilitates monitoring existing cartels by its members: it provides means to make sure ”cartel discipline” is being followed. Moreover, it may facilitate the establishment of new cartels or lead to higher / not market-based pricing without specific collusive agreements.

Instead of creating large PDF-format databases of scanned public contracts, the European Commission indeed encourages Member States to create contract registers with workable datasets (user friendly, open, downloadable and machine-readable information on contracts and especially prices and parties of the contract). This creates huge risks of market failure and tendering with pricing that is not based on the market prices. It thus requires further thought.

Conclusions

Digitalisation has and is transforming public procurement regime and procedures. It is usually considered as a positive change: less bureaucracy, enhanced efficiency, better and faster communication and strengthening integrity of public sector. However, digitalisation keeps challenging the public procurement regime through eg automated processes and production of detailed data - leaving less room for qualitative assessments. One can wonder whether this contributes to the higher-level objectives of increasing SME participation and generating better value for money.

Digitalisation brings new tools for monitoring contracting authorities and to detect competition distortions and integrity failures. However, there is a clear risk in providing “too much” and “too detailed” pricing and contract information to the market operators – hence lowering the threshold of different collusive practices. It is thus necessary to reconsider current regulatory trends and to perhaps develop a more nuanced regulatory framework for the transparency of procurement information in a framework of digitalised governance.

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Guest blogger

Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen is a Doctor of Laws and Adjunct Professor, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law at University of Lapland. She is also a current Member of the European Commission’s Stakeholders Expert Group on Public Procurement (SEGPP, E02807), the Research Council at Swedish Competition Authority, the Finnish Ministry of Finance national PP strategy working group (previously also national general contract terms for PP (JYSE) working group), the Finnish Public Procurement Association, of which she is a board member and previous chair, and the European Procurement Law Group (EPLG).

In addition to public procurement law, Kirsi-Maria is interested in contract law, tort law, corruption and transparency matters as well as state aid rules. She is the author of several articles (both in English and in Finnish) and a few books (in Finnish). Most recently, she has co-edited Transparency in EU Procurements. Disclosure within Public Procurement and during Contract Execution, vol 9 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2019), together with Prof R Caranta and Prof A Sanchez-Graells.

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