GC opens dangerous door to post-challenge / after-the-fact 'rationalisation' of public procurement evaluations (T-349/13)

In its Judgment of 4 July 2016 in case Orange Business Belgium SA v Commission, T-349/13, EU:T:2016:385, the General Court (GC) dealt with a highly technical challenge of a procurement decision concerning IT services. The GC Judgment is interesting in a broader context, though, as it deals with the very tricky question of the level of precision that evaluation teams need to employ when they draft evaluation documents and the possibility to take into account post-challenge (after-the-fact) 'rationalisations' of the original tender evaluations.

In the case at hand, the relevant dispute concerned the misapplication of an award sub-criterion for the assessment of IT network performance (service level agreement, or SLA). In my view, the relevant points to note are that:

  1. According to the tender documentation, as clarified by a "Questions and Answers" document published by the contracting authority following a request for clarification of the applicable award criteria and sub-criteria, the specific sub-criterion 6b was to be assessed as follows: "Points will be granted for the [RTD] and the [MF] separately, comparing the results of all bidders. To obtain the overall evaluation both points will be multiplied. To obtain the overall points, the evaluation result will be multiplied by a factor and rounded in order to obtain 10 points for the best bidder" (T-349/13, para 62; NB: what RTD and MF means is not relevant for our discussion).
  2. As regards award sub-criterion 6b, the applicant’s tender was evaluated as follows: ‘The provided [MF] [confidential] for the calculation of network performance [SLA] liquidated damages was considered EXCELLENT’ (T-349/13, para 64).
  3. According to the extract from the evaluation report concerning the successful tender, ‘the provided [MF] (redacted data) for the calculation of network performance SLA liquidated damages was welcomed and therefore the evaluation committee quoted the quality of the network performance SLA as VERY GOOD’ (T-349/13, para 65).

Thus, in basic terms, the main ground underlying the applicant's challenge is that the contracting authority deviated from its disclosed award criteria. Specifically, '[t]he main point of disagreement between the parties relates to whether the Commission [as contracting authority] had taken into account not only the information concerning the MF, but also the information concerning the RTD for the evaluation of the tenders in the light of award sub-criterion 6b' (T-349/13, para 69).

Remarkably, the GC establishes that '[i]t is apparent from reading the extract of the evaluation report which referred directly to award sub-criterion 6b that the information concerned indeed only the MF ... The Commission [as contracting authority] indeed accepts this moreover'. In my view, this would (and should) be sufficient to end the legal analysis and move on to whether the deviation from the disclosed award criteria is material and, if so, whether sticking to the disclosed criteria would have altered the award decision. However, this is not the analytical route followed by the GC.

Controversially, in order to assess this claim, the GC relies on the additional examination report (a further evaluation document) prepared by the contracting authority after the initial challenge of the evaluation by the disappointed bidder. Indeed, the GC takes into account that

it is expressly apparent from the additional examination report that the RTD was taken into consideration in order to evaluate the tenders in the light of award sub-criterion 6b. The fact that that report is subsequent to the award decision cannot affect either the validity or reliability of the comments set out therein (sic). It must be noted that Article 171(1) of the Rules of Application provides for the possibility of carrying out an additional examination if expressly requested by the unsuccessful tenderers. That provision would be rendered inoperative if every additional examination of that type were automatically deemed biased or subject to caution (T-349/13, para 75, emphasis added, emphasis added).

The GC also relies in a table produced by the contracting authority only in its defence document, which the contracting authority confirmed 'had been drawn up during the administrative procedure and before the present action was brought' (T-349/13, para 75, paras 76-78).

Overall, then, the GC's dismissal of this specific ground for challenge rests (at least partially) on reliance on a post-challenge additional examination report and an undated evaluation table self-certified to pre-date the challenge by the defending contracting authority. There are more issues concerning both the facts of the evaluation process and the debriefing meetings, but I do not think it is necessary to focus on them to discuss the GC approach from a general standpoint.

In my view, it is very dangerous to open the door to post-challenge (after-the-fact) rationalisations of evaluation documents. It is also evidentiary very weak to accept a document produced by one of the parties and take it at face value to have been prepared at an indetermined time 'during the administrative procedure and before the present action was brought'. The same way that significant restrictions have been developed in the case law to ensure that tenderers do not alter their tenders under the excuse that they are actually only 'clarifying' them (which has admittedly resulted in a grey zone that still requires further guidance), one would expect the same level of scrutiny for evaluation documents.

I am not advocating for absolute strictness in the interpretation of the evaluation reports, as the information they convey is oftentimes complex and open to (re)interpretation, but I think that the GC has moved way too far in granting such a degree of deference to the contracting authority in this case.

At the end of the day, if the evaluation audit trail cannot be guaranteed and challengers of procurement decisions can be undermined by the production of additional 'rationalisations' of defective evaluation reports, the remedies system will be severely damaged and the integrity of public procurement processes put at risk. Thus, a much tighter approach to the dating/timing of documents (one of the much awaited advantages of eProcurement and time-stamping), and an analysis of the evaluation reports that recognises obvious limitations and omissions as insufficient to support any 'reinterpretation' seems much preferable. Particularly because such an approach would provide evaluation teams the right incentives to do a proper job documenting their decisions from the outset and throughout the procurement procedure, which can only result in strengthened procedural robustness and (hopefully) improved decision-making.

For these reasons, at least from the perspective of the first principles applicable to a robust bid protest system capable of ensuring an acceptable level of procedural integrity, I consider the GC Judgment in Orange Business Belgium SA v Commission a very dangerous decision and would very much favour its annulment in case it got further appealed.