New edition of Public Procurement Indicators published by the European Commission -- some odd uk numbers

In late December 2016, the European Commission published its Public Procurement Indicators 2015. The statistical information included in this report shows some interesting trends, such as the general increase of procurement expenditure in the EU in 2015 -- which was up by almost 7% from 2014, to reach a total of €450.21 billion -- as well as the continued trend of concentration of procurement expenditure that results from aggregation and/or centralisation of procurement at Member State level.

Regarding the trend towards greater concentration of procurement expenditure in large awards, it is interesting to note that 'at EU level more than one third of the value ... is awarded through contract award notices of 100 million euros or more. This relative concentration of procurement, in large awards, is extremely remarkable in the UK and to a lesser extent in Poland and France. On the opposite side Germany and France concentrate a large fraction of the value procured in the works sector in the smaller size awards'.

This seems surprising because projects of more than €100 million may be relatively common in works (ie infrastructure), as well as large framework agreements for common use equipment (notably, IT hardware), but services contracts of that size would have seemed much less common at first thought (although it is possible that IT expenditure is moving from goods to services as cloud computing and other services are 'virtualised'). In any case, the the fact that the trend is much stronger in the UK than in the rest of the EU (combined) strikes as odd.

Indeed, as the Commission's report stresses, the UK leads the statistics for the award of very large contracts (ie those of a value over €100 million), both for works (66%) and, possibly more remarkable, for services (70%) -- with a smaller but still very significant lead on goods (52%). What is worth emphasising is that the UK's figures are 10 times the magnitude of those for any other Member State (and around 50 to 100 times those of most Member States) both for works and services, and that they double the figures for any other Member State in goods (while still being around 50 to 100 times those of most Member States).

A recalculation of the figures concerning very large contracts excluding data for the UK shows that 22% of procurement expenditure at EU27 level is awarded through contracts of €100 million or more for works and services, and 25% for goods (and, anecdotally, it should be taken into account that a  significant part of the latter is attributable to Italy's Consip centralised procurement activities). Thus, the fact that UK alone can move total figures up by 11% (ie a deviation of 50% of the EU27 statistics) seems quite striking.

Moreover, in general, the UK shows a disproportionately high share of contracts advertised in TED (and the estimated value of its contracts is larger throughout the value scale, with many less small contracts and many more large contracts than the EU average, which has an effect on the obligation to publish notices). This is particularly noticeable when compared to other EU countries with large procurement expenditure -- eg in 2015 the UK advertised an estimated 37% of its public expenditure, whereas Germany advertised less than 10% (see graphs below).

In view of these statistical divergences, a closer look at the UK numbers seems necessary in order to try to understand this trend towards concentrated expenditure through very large contracts. However, there is no detailed information in the report on the basis of which to carry out a qualitative analysis.

Many hypotheses are imaginable, such as the possibility that very large centralised contracts are tendered (for example, by the Crown Commercial Service) but they are not necessarily executed to a large percentage of their estimated value, or that the UK is actually significantly more centralised in terms of procurement than other Member States, particularly in services. Each of these possibilities opens itself up for speculation--for instance, about the reliability of statistical information that could include awarded but unexecuted procurement value (which may be very, extremely relevant in the inminent Brexit-related negotiations, as well as for any reevaluation of GPA coverage both for the EU and the UK) or, on the second scenario, about the drivers for such significant differences in centralisation volumes in different Member States and about the possibility of centralised procurement of services in a way that still allows for proper provision of (public) services to end users.

Either way, I find these issues most intriguing and, in case the issue of unexecuted (contracted) expenditure is included in the statistics, I think that more work should go into the collection of actual information and the publication of raw data that allows for refined analysis--ideally, in relation to the 2016 version of the public procurement indicators.


US GAO report on interagency contracting: A mirror for centralised purchasing strategies in the EU?

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published an interesting report and recommendations for executive action regarding interagency contracting.

In the US, interagency contracting refers to a strategy whereby 'one agency either places an order directly against another agency's contract or uses the contracting services of another agency to obtain supplies or services'. The EU rough equivalent is the use of centralised purchasing strategies and, in particular, the carrying out of cooperative procurement--most often through dedicated central purchasing bodies. 

In view of the importance given to these 'smart procurement' strategies in the revision of the current EU rules (see October 2012 compromise text for a 'state of play' on centralised procurement strategies), learning from the lessons offered by the experience in the US looks like a promising opportunity.

In my view, the relevance of the GAO interagency contracting report relies on its realism and practical approach. Indeed, GAO 'designated the management of interagency contracting as a high risk area in 2005, in part because of the need for stronger internal controls and clear definitions of agency roles and responsibilities'. 

Following a first assessment in 2010 and the implementation of important policy reforms aimed at strengthening the governance and oversight of interagency contracting, GAO now issues a series of additional recommendations that, basically, boil down to giving effect to the 2011 Policy developed by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and to strengthening the collection and analysis of data on interagency contracting. Some of the most interesting extracts are, in my opinion, the following:
OFPP issued guidance in September 2011 that requires agencies to develop business cases for creating new governmentwide acquisition contracts and multi-agency contracts. The business cases must address three key elements: (1) the scope of the contract vehicle and potential duplication with existing contracts; (2) the value of the new contract vehicle, including expected benefits and costs of establishing a new contract; and (3) the administration and expected interagency use of the contract vehicle.
The guidance also requires senior agency officials to approve the business cases and post them on an OMB website to provide interested federal stakeholders an opportunity to review and provide feedback. Feedback is addressed through various channels, including posting written comments through the website and sending letters or memos to stakeholders. According to OFPP, it also conducts follow-up with sponsoring agencies when significant questions are raised during the interagency vetting process, including questions related to potential value or duplication.
OFPP and GSA have taken a number of steps to address the need for better data on interagency contract vehicles. We previously have reported that a lack of reliable information on interagency contracts hampers agencies’ ability to do market research as well as efforts to manage and leverage them effectively. To promote better and easier access to data on existing interagency contracts, OFPP has worked to improve the Interagency Contract Directory, a searchable online database of indefinite delivery vehicles for interagency use created in 2003. [...] Short-term improvements include enhancing the search function and simplifying the presentation of search results, which should aid market research. Potential long-term enhancements include the ability to access vendor past performance information and upload contract documents, such as statements of work, to the system. OFPP officials also noted that this information will be helpful in providing data on the use of interagency contract vehicles, as the database provides information on the amount of obligations against the contracts, and eventually may provide other information such as a notification when contracts not designated for interagency use are being used in that manner.
In my view, the practical recommendations and the policy objectives set out by the OFPP and now strongly endorsed / recommended by GAO make sense and should be carried to the regulation of centralised procurement bodies/strategies in the forthcoming EU rules, with a particular focus on data collection and analysis (which has been significantly reduced with the proposed suppression of article 84 of the 2011 Commission's proposal and, particularly, of its paragraph 3(1) that mandated special public oversight of central purchasing bodies). 

I think that the more general transatlantic message to carry home in the revision of the current of the EU rules is that, as procurement strategies become more complicated, more planning and more oversight / analysis are required. Maybe not an easy lesson to square with the aim of procurement simplification, but definitely an operative need if we want to avoid creating (or nurturing) a 'regulatory beast' we may be unable to tame.