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.

The curious case of the open envelope inside the envelope - a propos GC's Gfi PSF v Commission Judgment (T-200/16)

The General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) has issued Judgment in case Gfi PSF v Commission, T-200/16, EU:T:2017:294 (available in French only). This is a curious case about the physical formalities imposed in a procurement procedure carried out by the European Commission (Publications Office), which required a set of envelopes to be enclosed in multiple layers so as to avoid their tampering prior to the official opening of bids. It is also interesting because it raises some issues around the difficulties in the fact finding of processes dominated by formal documentary evidence.

I am also afraid that the factual circumstances of the case are probably rather common in practice (they remind me of the submission of a tender for a multi-million concession contract that had to be submitted in suitcases locked with padlocks in Mexico some 10 years ago), and I guess that the case also reflects some of the advantages that could be gained by a proper migration to e-procurement (or at least to electronic submission of tenders).

In the case at hand, tenderers had to prepare their tenders in two separate envelopes. An envelope (a) containing their technical offer and an envelope (b) containing their financial offer. Both envelopes then had to be enclosed in a third envelope (c) marked as "Tender - not to be opened by the internal mail service" and placed in a fourth envelop (d), which had to be sent by registered mail or courier service, or be submitted in the offices of the European Commission as indicated in the letter of invitation to tender.

Gfi PSF prepared its tender in accordance with these instructions and sent it to the European Commission via UPS. However, t is worth noting that, inside envelope (c), Gfi PSF did not only include envelopes (a) and (b), but also several binders including additional information. The tender was submitted in time and there is an electronic receipt issued by UPS with a signature from a Commission official. However, an acknowledgement of receipt was also prepared by the mail service of the European Commission indicating that the offer had been received, but not in good state, and also including the following:

two headings, relating respectively to the "first container" and the "second container". In the section on the first container, the pre-printed indications "open" and "damaged" have both been checked. In the section on the second container, the same information was also checked. This last heading also contains the words "did not include the words "Do not open by the mail office"" and "there were no double envelopes", which were not checked (T-200/16, para 7, own translation from French).

After proceeding to the formal opening of the tenders, Gfi PSF's was rejected on the basis that the tender was already open when the contracting authority received it, which is a cause for rejection under Art 111(4)(b) of the Financial Regulation. After Gfi PSF challenged this decision and asked for additional details, the European Commission wrote a letter indicating that

even if the electronic receipt [issued by UPS] did not contain any remarks as to the status of the consignment containing the applicant's tender, this was because of the technical constraints of the terminal used by the courier acting for UPS. The [Commission's] note of receipt acknowledging the damage of the consignment was signed jointly by the same courier and a representative of the [Commission]. Copies of this note and a photograph of the said item were annexed to the" Commission's letter (T-200/16, para 13, own translation from French).

After inspecting the envelopes still in the custody of the Commission, counsel for Gfi PSF challenged the time, the content, and the probationary value of this acknowledgement of receipt issued by the Commission. It also sought to prove that the document had been issued unilaterally by the Commission because it was not clear that UPS had signed the note (which is however later proven wrong by the GC, see paras 53-54), and submitted that in any case the state of the offer resulted from improper handling by the Commission's mail services, rather than as a result of defective compliance with the physical requirements for the submission of the offer by Gfi PSF at the time of its expedition.

The Commission opposed this interpretation of the documents (in particular the lack of signature by a UPS representative) and the physical evidence (ie damaged envelopes), and provided additional evidence downloaded from UPS' tracking webpage, where the following remarks appeared from entries logged in the weeks following the delivery of the package to the Commission:

"[t] he goods are lacking. UPS will notify the additional details to the consignor / goods entrusted to the consignee "; and ... " [t]he damage to the contents of the packages has been reported [;] We will notify the consignor / We are investigating the claim for damages" (T-200/16, para 18, own translation from French).

Overall, then, the dispute concerns the factual circumstances of the delivery, the documentation of its receipt, as well as the ensuing investigation of the Commission's claim that the package was delivered by UPS. It is hard to imagine the physical state of the envelopes (it would have helped to have the pictures attached to the GC's Judgment), but it is certainly plausible that the envelopes where stacked in such a way that opening envelop (d) also ripped envelop (c) (particularly if they were of similar sizes). Be it as it may, the reasoning of the GC is interesting beyond the specific issues leading to the discrepancy in the state of the offer at the time of submission and of the formal opening of the tenders, which exonerates the Commission from any responsibility.

In the GC's view

... the acknowledgement of receipt is of significant probative value, since its content is attested by the signatures, on the one hand, of a person subject to the contracting authority and, on the other hand, by a third party not directly involved in the procurement tender, but rather acting indirectly on behalf of the tenderer whose tender is considered irregular by the contracting authority. However, the acknowledgement of receipt contains indications that both the first and second containers were both open and damaged, and that the second container displayed the words "Not to be open by the mail office" and contained a double envelope (T-200/16, paras 57-58, own translation from French).

This would create a difficulty in establishing the moment in which envelop (c) had been opened despite including the prescribed label against it. However, given the very peculiar circumstances of the case, where envelop (c) contained not only envelops (a) and (b)--which may not have been compromised--but also the binders including additional information, the GC found a way out by adopting a functional approach to the rules in Art 111(4)(b) Financial Regulation from the perspective of the integrity of the process. In that regard, it stressed that the submission instructions and Art 111(4)(b) aimed to ensure the confidentiality of all tenders until they are simultaneously open. From that perspective, the factual circumstances of the case led to the assessment that

On the one hand, the applicant does not claim that the binders were themselves placed in a closed envelope, the binders being visible in the photograph to which it refers, annexed to the letter of [the Commission sent during the debriefing and complaints procedure]. Furthermore, the fact that the binders were placed by the applicant in an envelope on which it indicated that it had affixed the words 'invitation to tender - not to be opened by the courier' [ie envelop (c)], which is established by the acknowledgment of receipt, shows that in the applicants' own view, the binders contained documents constituting its tender. Consequently, and due to the fact that it must be held that the outer envelope and the intermediate envelope of the item containing the applicant's tender had been presented open on the premises of the [European Commission], it must be found that certain data forming part of the applicant's offer were directly accessible. Consequently, it appears that the applicant's tender was submitted in such a way that its confidentiality, as required by Article 111 (1) of the Financial Regulation, was not guaranteed, as it was "already open" within the meaning of paragraph 4 (b) of that Article. Consequently, this offer was regularly rejected (T-200/16, paras 65-66, own translation from French).

This is important because the GC has no interest in (and probably no possibility to) establishing the way in which envelope (c) came to be open despite it being labelled as not to be open by the mail service. This fits with the burden of proof derived from a claim for damages based on Art 340 TFEU, which was the relevant underlying legal basis for this case. However, this leaves important questions unanswered, such as what would have happened if the binders were sealed in envelops, so that the opening of envelope (c) would not have made any of the contents of the offer directly accessible. In that case, the rejection of the offer on the basis that it had already been opened would be very problematic and would probably have required further investigation of how this came to be.

On balance, it seems that the GC places the burden of ensuring that the offers remain confidential on the tenderers, at least implicitly, by supporting a broad approach to the rejection of offers which confidentiality may have been compromised. As a matter of general trend, this seems preferable to the opposite. However, this also shows the unavoidable limitations of paper-based procurement procedures. Had the Commission been running an e-procurement (or at least electronic submission) process, this situation could have been easily avoided. It seems that, once more, the adaptation of procurement (and administrative activity, more generally) to new technologies cannot come quickly enough.