Interesting Procurement Paper (Li & Xu, 2016): A Blueprint for Variable Remuneration of Public Procurement Officers? A Warning against some types of Centralised Procurement?

I have just read the paper by D Z Li and M Xu, 'Competition in Procurement Auctions with Corruption' (February 2, 2016), which assesses an interesting scenario of competition in public procurement tenders where the person in charge of running the procedure (the procurement officer, or 'bureaucrat', in their terminology) can require bribes from winning bidders, and where those bribes can be proportionate to the final value of the contract awarded.

Their paper is interesting because it fleshes out the incentives that a bureaucrat that expects to obtain a rent at the end of the procedure has, both in terms of affecting the number of bidders (to reduce it), and the level of disclosure of information (to conceal information in order to cover the corrupt practice). My personal intuition is that their insights should be useful to consider non-corrupt scenarios involving buyer rents other than bribes and, in particular, the introduction of bonuses or other variable retribution mechanisms for public buyers, which could well create the same incentives (as discussed below). Moreover, I find the paper thought-provoking because (legitimate) kick-backs are used to finance the activities of central purchasing bodies, which raises issues of their impact on social welfare if they behave like individual bureaucrats would (as also discussed below).

The paper and its model

As they explain in their abstract:

We study the effects of corruption on equilibrium competition and social welfare in a public procurement auction. A bureaucrat runs the auction on behalf of the government. He invites firms into the auction at positive costs, and may request a bribe from the winning firm afterward[s]. We first show that, in the absence of corruption, the bureaucrat invites more firms than social optimum under quite standard assumptions. Secondly, the effects of corruption on competition and social welfare vary across different forms of bribery. In the case of fixed bribe, corruption has no effect on equilibrium competition, yet [it does] induce social welfare loss due to the distortion cost of increased public spending. In the case of proportional bribe, the corrupt bureaucrat will invite less firms into the auction, which may result in Pareto-improving allocation in equilibrium. Finally, we also show that information disclosure may consistently induce more firms to be invited, if compared with the case of no information disclosure, no matter [whether] there is corruption or not.

I find some of the assumptions and insights of their paper particularly thought-provoking. They (implicitly) base their model on the existence of an agency relationship between the bureaucrat and the government, as well as between the government and society at large [for discussion, see here and here and, in Spanish, here]. This makes the model interesting from the perspective of the social externalities that improperly designed public procurement models can create, particularly if they allow public buyers to pursue (self-serving) goals that do not align with promotion of social welfare.

In their paper, Li & Xu explain that 'the government is modelled as a government division ... who cares about its own procurement pay-off rather than the overall social welfare' (p. 2). This can lead to designing the procurement process in a manner that invites too many interested bidders because 'the optimal number of firms that maximizes the government's pay-off is larger than the efficient number of firms that maximizes social welfare' (ibid), and due to the fact that 'the government prefers [a] higher level of competition in the procurement process' than would be socially efficient (p. 3). The undesirability of the excessive number of bidders is mainly derived from the costs they incur in order to participate in the tender, which are wasted for all those that did not stand a real chance of winning the contract (or, indeed, for all except the winning bidder).

The main insight of their paper is that, while the existence of a fixed bribe hurts both the government and society at large due to the higher cost of procurement, the existence of a proportionate bribe may 'increase social welfare [by inducing an efficient number of firms, or just one firm, to be invited], yet it hurts the government, as the government prefers higher level of competition in the procurement process' because that reduces its (private) procurement cost and imposes the externality derived from excessive tendering costs assumed by the disappointed private bidders [for discussion on the absence of consideration of these costs in economic surveys supporting recent public procurement law reforms in the EU, see here].

Their insight is based, among other elements, on the 'standard assumption for procurement auctions that firms' cost distribution is of decreasing reversed hazard rate (DRHR)' (p. 1, for an explanation of the reversed hazard rate and how it operates, see here). As Li & Xu explain, 'The intuition behind this ... is that increasing competition will gradually squeeze out the expected rent of the winning firm. Furthermore, the expected rent converges to zero when the number of firms approaches to infinity'. Or, in very simple words, that the lower the number of bidders, the higher the expected rent by those that participate. That is what would allow bidders to tender less competitive prices when competitive pressure is reduced (ie less bidders are invited), which would also be in the interest of the bureaucrat expecting to receive a proportional bribe (a higher rent for the winning bidder carries a higher rent for the bureaucrat as well).

They also stress in clear terms that 'information disclosure will increase both the efficiency and the optimal number of firms in the procurement auction. The intuition is that, under information disclosure, firms' cost estimates become more heterogen[e]ous, and therefore, for [a] given number of firms, the auction becomes less competitive than before' (p. 13). Furthermore, 'under information disclosure, firms become more heterogen[e]ous in their cost estimates, and the winning rent, which [in their model] is the difference between the lowest and second lowest costs, may also get larger as well'. However, t'when a corrupt bureaucrat can control information release, it would be more difficult to detect corruption. As we know, information disclosure implies more firms to be invited into the auction, and corruption under the proportion[ate] bribe implies less firms to be invited. The combined effects of these two are mixed'. Overall, then, the implications of their findings seems to be that a corrupt bureaucrat will have mixed incentives on whether to reduce the volume of information disclosed in the tender process because more information may increase its own proportionate rent, but it will also trigger both more interest in the tender and more risk of detection of the corruption.

a blueprint for variable remuneration of procurement officers?

As mentioned, my intuition is that these insights can be useful to consider non-corrupt scenarios involving 'bureaucrat' rents other than bribes and, in particular, the introduction of bonuses or other variable retribution mechanisms for public buyers, which could well create the same incentives. My intuition is that, should the bureaucrat have a legal financial incentive to obtain a rent a the end of the tender, and should the existence of this rent not need to be hidden, it would have an incentive to pursue strategies that maximize social value (even if not necessarily government pay-offs) by disclosing information that reduces the number of potentially interested bidders for which the tender is not actually competitive. Moreover, the financial incentive could include an element of reverse proportionality, so that the bonus would be larger when the government pay-off is increased (ie when the total cost of the procurement is reduced as much as possible within the framework of the competition between the efficient number of bidders). If this is true, then, one of the main aspects that Member States should consider going forward would not only be linked to decisions on how to transpose and develop the rules for restricted procedures and for procurement procedures involving negotiations, but also linked to the establishment of appropriate systems of incentives for procurement officers (bureaucrats) to make the right choice of procedure and to conduct the tender in a way that is aligned with social welfare and with (intra)governmental pay-offs.

what implications for kick-back based central purchasing financing?

Central purchasing bodies (CPBs) can be financed in many ways, but a popular model is for them to receive kick-backs (in the form of rappels of fees) from suppliers included in the framework agreements and other contracts that CPBs manage. Those kick-backs are generally proportionate the value of the call-offs that end-user contracting authorities place with each supplier. In that case, the CPB is not in a different economic position than a procurement officer (bureaucrat) expecting to receive a proportionate rent (or bribe) at the end of the procurement process it runs. Therefore, it seems to me that one of the transferable insights of Li & Xu's paper is that CPBs will be structurally in a situation where they might as well aim to achieve the highest rent, which would require for them to reduce the number of bidders and (possibly, but not necessarily) the information disclosed at the outset of the procedure, so as to reduce the number of competitors and increase their expected rents--thus triggering higher kick-backs for the CPB. This would match well with the intuition that CPBs can become self-interested organisations in the way they run their framework agreements, and not pay excessive attention to the real interest of their principal (end-user contracting authorities) or society at large, particularly if the use of their services is mandatory (ie if they do not need to justify net advantages, at least for the end-user contracting authorities, in order to attract volume of orders).

If this intuition holds true, it would be interesting to look at the impact of the financing of CPBs through kick-backs in more detail, in order to assess whether this system of financial incentives and rewards fosters social welfare overall, or is only beneficial for the CPB (and/or, the government) at the expense of broader social interests. This would be particularly relevant if, as anecdotal evidence indicates, access to centralised procurement is difficult for most firms (and, in particular, SMEs), so that CPBs structurally reduce the number of bidders for their (large) contracts, which the model in the paper would suggest increases the rents for both the CPBs and the included suppliers, but imposes both direct costs on government (through higher procurement costs that could be achievable in alternative settings of increased competition within CPB procurement) and indirect social costs via externalities [for discussion of some of these economic issues, see here].

Excellent @E15Initiative Think Piece on Competition, Corruption and Trade dimensions of Public Procurement Regulation (Anderson, Kovacic and Müller: 2016)

The E15Initiative jointly implemented by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the World Economic Forum aims to generate strategic analysis and recommendations for government, business, and civil society geared towards strengthening the global trade and investment system for sustainable development. One of their great initiatives is to publish 'think pieces' to stimulate a more informed debate about how trade policy and institutions can best be adapted to the highly interconnected global economy of the 21st century.

One of these first think pieces is Anderson, Kovacic and Müller, Promoting Competition and Deterring Corruption in Public Procurement Markets: Synergies with Trade Liberalisation (Feb 2016). In this well-thought and persuasive piece, the authors expand on their previous thoughts in this area [“Ensuring integrity and competition in public procurement markets: a dual challenge for good governance,” in Arrowsmith & Anderson (eds), The WTO Regime on Government Procurement: Challenge and Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 681-718] and make a compelling case for the careful integration and balancing of competition, corruption and trade considerations in public procurement regulation. Their abstract is as follows:
Efficient and effective government procurement markets are critical to economic growth, development, and the welfare of citizens. Yet, two very serious challenges bear on the performance of these markets: (i) ensuring integrity in the procurement process (preventing corruption on the part of public officials); and (ii) promoting effective competition among suppliers. Typically, these challenges are viewed as separate and distinct: the former (corruption) is treated primarily as a principal-agent problem in which the official (the “agent”) enriches himself/herself at the expense of the government or the public (the “principal”); while the latter (promoting competition) involves preventing collusive practices among potential suppliers and removing barriers that impede participation in relevant markets. This think-piece demonstrates that these two problems often overlap, for example where public officials are paid to turn a blind eye to collusive tendering schemes or to release information that facilitates collusion. As well, while transparency requirements are often central to efforts to eradicate corruption, such measures can, if not properly tailored, facilitate collusion and thereby undermine efforts to strengthen competition. Thus, careful coordination of measures to deter corruption and to foster competition is needed. Further, the think-piece argues that participation in the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA), or in similar regional arrangements, can play an important role both in promoting competition and in deterring corruption. The GPA enhances possibilities for healthy competition in relevant markets through participation by foreign-based or affiliated contractors. It helps to prevent corruption by requiring adherence to appropriate (tailored) transparency measures, and by exposing procurement activities to checks and balances including domestic review (“bid protest” or “remedy”) systems and international scrutiny.
Focusing on my pet topic of transparency in public procurement regulation and how this can affect competition in markets where public procurement is an important demand component, I am thrilled to read that Anderson, Kovacic and Müller stress that:
... increasingly, some challenges in the design of appropriate levels of transparency at the different stages of the procurement process have been recognised in both the procurement and competition communities. The OECD (2007) points out that: 
Governments need to find an adequate balance between the objectives of ensuring transparency, providing equal opportunities for bidders, and other concerns, in particular efficiency. The drive for transparency must therefore be tempered by making transparent what sufficiently enables corruption control. 
Indeed ... certain kinds of transparency measures can clearly facilitate collusion and, consequently, are problematic from a competition policy point of view (Marshalland Marx 2012; Sanchez Graells 2015A). While, for example, there may be no way around the need for publication of award criteria and technical specifications in public procurement if responsive tenders are to be solicited, their usefulness as tools for facilitating inter-supplier agreement needs to be recognised. Similarly, the publication of procurement outcomes, while enabling monitoring by the public as the “principal,” can also serve cartel participants in policing anti-competitive agreements and thereby enhancing cartel stability. Sanchez Graells (2015B) discusses specific possible concerns regarding transparency measures that may be associated with centralised procurement registers. 
A further complication is that optimal transparency levels may differ from country to country. “Solutions” that are potentially workable in some contexts may be highly problematic in others. For example, in jurisdictions where outright corruption problems are believed to be minimal, some lessening of transparency measures might be considered, for the sake of preventing collusion. On the other hand, in economies where corruption is rampant, any lessening of transparency measures may be a recipe for disaster. This explains why the very high priority that is given to transparency in public procurement processes in some countries in Eastern Europe may, in fact, be appropriate notwithstanding possible collusion facilitation concerns, at least as an interim measure. In any case, as explained below, both competition law enforcement and competition advocacy are clearly part of the solution (pp.9-10).
Of course, I am really thankful that they picked up on some of my recent research and I hope that their think piece will help disseminate these insights, which I consider extremely important for the proper design of public procurement rules in a way that is socially advantageous [for further discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, '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' (November 2013)].

Another interesting paper on corruption and (induced) collusion in public procurement (Gong & Zhou, 2015)

Still on the topic of interaction between corruption and collusion, or how corrupt officials can create or consolidate collusion in procurement markets, I have come across another interesting recent paper: T Gong & N Zhou, "Corruption and marketization: Formal and informal rules in Chinese public procurement" (2014) 9(1) Regulation & Governance 63-76. 

This time, the research focuses on the Chinese experience and shows shockingly (not) similar trends to the Russian case study mentioned yesterday. The paper forcefully argues that 'empirical findings from China indicate that the relationship between market liberalization and corruption is more complex and nuanced than conventional wisdom suggests'. 

Some of the most interesting insights refer to the collusion (in broad terms) of bidders and public officials to avoid the application of formal public procurement rules (72-73) which, once again, will sound very familiar to scholars and practitioners with experience in any jurisdiction.
 

Interesting paper on corruption and (induced) collusion in public procurement (Ostrovnaya & Podkolzina, 2015)

In their recent paper "Antitrust Enforcement in Public Procurement: the Case of Russia" (2015) 11(2) Journal of Competition Law & Economics 331-352, M Ostrovnaya and E Podkolzina of the International Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms discuss an example of interaction between corruption and (apparent) collusion in public procurement for drugs in Russia. 

I found the paper an interesting read and some of their insights on how corrupt officials can create or consolidate collusion in procurement markets will certainly ring many bells. This was an issue we recently discussed extensively at a knowledge exchange event at the Law School of the University of Sussex, and one that seems to be triggering increased attention in academic and practitioner circles.

Ostrovnaya and Podkolzina's analysis clearly shows that antitrust intervention against the public sector's restrictive procurement practices was resisted by a specific public buyer, which most likely decided to resort to an orchestrated system of bid covers (or passive bidding, as they label it) to avoid further antitrust intervention--thus deviating the attention of the antitrust watchdog towards the behaviour of the (certainly non-innocent) bidders. 

Their case study will be a useful guideline for the development of more effective competition rules applicable to the public sector. Or, at least, a warning against naive assumptions that antitrust intervention can ipso facto exclude issues of (induced) collusion in procurement markets.

New Book: G Racca & C Yukins (eds) "Integrity and Efficiency in Sustainable Public Contracts" (Brussels, Bruylant, 2014).


The new book on "Integrity and Efficiency in Sustainable Public Contracts. Balancing Corruption Concerns in Public Procurement Internationally" edited by Profs. Racca and Yukins is now available.

As the editors indicate

Ensuring efficiency and integrity throughout the public procurement cycle is essential to a sound allocation of taxpayers’ money. Yet public contracts are plagued by corruption, collusion, favoritism and conflicts of interest. This book addresses these problems from sophisticated, academic, institutional and practical perspectives.
The book’s ambition is to shape the public debate in the procurement community by highlighting how corruption implies violations of fundamental rights and undermines the fiduciary relationship between citizens and public institutions. The analysis underlines how corruption may stem from - and yet be resolved - through the exercise of discretion in the public procurement system. Focusing on the effects of public corruption and private collusion on procurement integrity, the book marks the features of misconduct and suggests needed counter-measures. The work also emphasizes that the pursuit of efficiency and integrity in public contracts must be rooted in professional skills, and in ethical regulations and training for public officers.
The research reflected in these pieces comes from sources around the world, and offers an excellent foundation for further development of these topics. Expanding on prior research, this volume builds on a more active transnational academic cooperation and exchanges of ideas on integrity in public contracts for the benefit of citizens.
This book is intended as both a textbook and an edited collection and it is available as an e-book too. The authors of the chapters are all specialists in their respective fields, and their different geographical and professional perspectives represent a valuable contribution to the scientific literature.
I have contributed a chapter on “Prevention and Deterrence of Bid Rigging: A Look from the New EU Directive on Public Procurement”, which SSRN version is available here.

Osei-Afoakwa's Paper on Transparency and Procurement

In a recent paper on transparency and public procurement, Dr Osei-Afoakwa presents a very passionate defence of maximising transparency in procurement for the purposes of combating corruption ["How Relevant is the Principle of Transparency in Public Procurement?(2014) Developing Country Studies 4(6): 140-146]. 

Given my personal view that transparency in procurement (in the EU) is excessive and potentially self-defeating (see here and here), I read it with some skepticism. 

However, I have been glad to discover a section where the advocation of transparency is subjected to some counter-arguments. In my view, the most interesting ones are summarised as follows:
With reference to transparency as it affects public procurement, the increased knowledge associated with transparency may prove counterproductive. According to Jenny (2005) unmitigated transparency may breed anticompetitive practices, facilitate tacit collusion among the tenderers and thereby foment corruption. Under certain circumstances, the bureaucracy associated with the need to provide more information may indeed assist bribe givers to identify potentially corrupt officials (Bac, 2001). Bac (2001) argues that, this may facilitate corruption by enabling easy identification of people with whom “connection” may be established for the purpose of corrupt practices. In addition, knowledge acquired by potentially corruptible officials through transparency measures will enable them to learn the “ways and means” of perfecting and promoting the art of corruption.


Moreover, transparency for the sake of it is not a final-one-stop cure for the corruption in procurement syndrome. It must be supported by other corruption-reducing imperatives including assurance of effective competition and efficiency in managing public resources (Beth, 2005). Nowadays, as indicated by policy developments and experience in advanced countries spearheaded by the United States, the OECD and WTO, and reflected in “internationally shared norms”, effective competition is being maintained through the international trade liberalisation crusade (Anderson and Kovacic, 2009).In addition, sometimes unmitigated transparency may be at variance with other requirements of good governance. It is therefore important to establish an appropriate balance between transparency and other tenets of good governance by ensuring that information is released with due regard to established rules (Wittig, 2005). Thus absolute, unmitigated transparency may not be always desirable. The degree of transparency and openness should be adapted accordingly to suit the nature, status and value of recipient of information, the stage of the procurement cycle, the sensitivity of information, the size of the contract and the nature of the item to be procured. Therefore it becomes necessary to time the release of information to suit the nature, status and value of recipients (emphasis added).
Overall, the paper is interesting food for thought for anyone interested in the difficult balance between transparency and effective competition in public procurement. 

How #publicprocurement rules seem to be diminishing #competition in #China: A wake up call

The latest edition of the China Competition Bulletin reports on the state of affairs in Chinese public procurement markets, where inadequate rules and procedures seemingly fail to ensure value for money as a result of a lack of transparency and accountability.

According to the report, 
The principles of openness and transparency, fair competition, impartiality, and good faith are required to be observed in government procurement. China’s government procurement system provides general rules on competition, transparency, and fairness. However, the implementation of the rules is less than ideal. Insufficient disclosure of information, conflicts of interest, discriminatory treatment of enterprises, excessive prices, and poor quality purchasing have been frequently reported and raised the public’s concern in recent years. The newly released Blue Book of Rule of Law: Annual Report on China’s Rule of Law No. 11 (2013) provides an empirical report on the current state of government procurement.
Remarkably, other than the difficulties in having access to comparable data (and, generally, to data), the report evidences that
Data and price comparison results revealed that certain government procured goods can be much more expensive than average market prices. An extreme example mentioned in the report was a desktop computer that was procured at a cost of CNY 98,730 when the average market price for a computer with the same specifications was CNY 2,649. [...] In the end, the prices of 19,020 items were compared. These goods covered 29 product categories such as uninterruptible power systems, laptops, dehumidifiers, printers, and fax machines. The results show that the prices of 15,190 items were higher than the average market prices and that taxpayers had paid an extra CNY 20,743,897.50. On the positive side, the price comparison results show that 68,025 items purchased through the centralised procurement of the Central Government had saved taxpayers CNY 5,543,185. The 68,025 items, covering desktops, workstations, and printers, were chosen from 85,963 records collected for the research.
In view of such findings, 
the report notes that transparency is the foundation of fair competition, impartiality, and good faith. Transparency can effectively facilitate fair competition, deter corruption, and prevent China, the world’s largest procurement market, from turning into the world’s largest market for public corruption.
It seems that the Chinese public procurement system would benefit from a revision along the lines suggested by the report itself, which includes recommendations for the revision and improvement of the legal system for government procurement; which should be coupled with those in the OECD July 2012 Recommendation and, more generally, it offers a clear example of the interaction between public procurement and competition, as well as the need to consider  effects of public procurement regulations on competitive markets, as Prof. Yukins and Lt. Col. Cora have just emphasised in their featured comment in Government Contractor, March 6, 2013, Vol. 55, No. 9, ¶ 64.

When analysing the situation in the USA, Yukins and Cora conclude that
a substantial body of literature confirms that procurement rules can have a significant negative impact on competitive commercial markets. Procurement rules can, for example, raise new barriers to entry in the commercial marketplace, facilitate collusion in the commercial space, or artificially buoy commercial prices. Federal procurement regulators have not, as a regular matter, assessed those possible impacts in past rulemaking, but sound practice and legal authority, including an executive order, seem to call for such assessments. Assessing procurement rules’ likely impact on competitive markets would be in accord with best practices in rulemaking, and would help ensure that the federal procurement system integrates efficiently, and not disruptively, into the broader economy.
Their views and recommendations, which I fully share [Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011)], are relevant for procurement reform in all major jurisdictions, such as the USA, the EU and  China. Hopefully, too, such revisions can lead to an exchange of best practices and, to the extent desirable, certain global convergence.

#Decency in #publicprocurement could take us out of the #crisis: or how #corruption is making us bleed out

Stories about corruption in public procurement are so common that they have become part of the daily news (and, sadly, a part that tends to receive less and less attention due to routine and tiredness from repetition). However, when one looks at the aggregate data, an immediate need for reaction becomes evident.

As the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs has just emphasised "The Commission's best estimate is that 120 billion euros are lost each year to corruption in the 27 Member States of the EU. That is the equivalent of the whole EU-budget. In public procurement, studies suggest that up to 20- 25% of the public contracts’ value may be lost to corruption.

Given that  public procurement represents around 20% of the GDP in the European Union, a loss of 20% of its value due to corrupt practices of all sorts means that corruption in public procurement costs around 4% of the EU GDP

If we add the fact that, sometimes, corruption is coupled with collusion (or bid rigging), which can generate an increase in prices of approximately 20% (with instances of around 40%), the numbers may be easily brought up to losses due to illegal and indecent behavior representing 40% to 50% of its value--i.e. around 8-10% of GDP.

The power of these facts seems unbeatable and we should all have it now clear in our minds that only decency can save us from the economic crisis.

However we want to run the numbers or reduce them to be conservative in our claims, even a reduction of 50% of the perceived level of corruption would not only avoid most of the cuts being imposed on the budgets for the provision of public services, but it would also allow for a relaxation of tax pressure on individuals and companies, and to provide effective economic incentives to entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Even in clearer terms: addressing the issue of corruption and collusion in procurement would single-handedly bring the EU from recession/depression into economic growth. In this regard, the initiative of the European Commission to move from rhetoric to results in the fight against corruption (in public procurement) in the EU must be echoed, voiced and supported.

This is something we intend to do at workshops B5 and B6 of the Global Revolution VI Conference next June in Nottingham. Suggestions and active participation is encouraged and definitely more than welcome!