GC case law round up: Three relatively recent public procurement judgments (T-700/14; T-74/15; T-441/15)

After some months of having them sitting on my desk, and now that teaching obligations at the University of Bristol Law School subside a bit, it is about time to comment on three relatively recent Judgments of the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the area of public procurement. Of the three cases, two concern abnormally low tenders and the other  a tricky point about the scope of the CJEU's jurisdiction in the context of framework agreements--which creates some fuzziness in the delineation of private/public law dimensions of public procurement by the EU Institutions. Anecdotally, two of the cases involve European Dynamics, and two of them are available in French but not in English.

Abnormally low tenders (I): Substantive Aspects

Judgment of 26 January 2017, TV1 v Commission, T-700/14, not published, EU:T:2017:35. This tender concerned the provision of integrated audiovisual production, dissemination and archiving services for the European Commission in the context of the Europe by Satellite programme and was, thus, regulated by the Financial Regulation (version of 2012).

The procedure for the award of the contract foresaw three technical quality criteria in addition to the price criterion. It established that only offers that achieved a minimum score of 60% under each technical quality criterion and an overall score of at least 70% on their overall technical quality would be considered for award. It also determined that the overall score of a given tender would be calculated as follows: the ratio between the lowest priced offer and the price of a given offer would be multiplied by 40, and this would be added to the total (technical) quality score (over 100) multiplied by 60 (para 4, own translation from French). In other words, the award criteria relied on 60% of the points given to an absolute evaluation of technical quality and 40% of the points given to a relative evaluation of the prices offered by different tenderers. Given the relative assessment of the price component, this type of evaluation method is prone to challenges based on the treatment of seemingly abnormally low tenders.

Indeed, amongst other legal grounds, the award of the contract was challenged on this basis; the incumbent provider and disappointed tenderer, TV1, argued that the Commission had infringed Art 110(2) Financial Regulation, in conjunction with Art 151 of its Implementing Regulation and the general duty of good administration by not proceeding to a detailed assessment (and rejection) of the seemingly abnormally low offer submitted by the successful tenderer. The GC will eventually reject the complaint in its entirety. In my opinion, some parts of the reasoning of the GC deserve closer attention.

After reproducing consolidated case law on the interpretation of these provisions and the circumstances under which a contracting authority may (or should) have doubts about the viability of a seemingly abnormal tender (paras 32-42), as well as on the broad discretion enjoyed by the contracting authority and the limited review in which the court should engage (para 44), the GC proceeds to analyse the different arguments raised by TV1 against the Commission's decision. In particular, it is interesting to note that the GC dismisses arguments put forward by TV1 concerning the duty the Commission should have had to identify the winning offer as seemingly abnormally low on the basis of the fact that (i) it was 40% lower than the maximum annual budget allowed by the Commission in the tender documents and (ii) it was 11% lower than TV1's offer.

(i) Interestingly, the reasoning of the GC concerning the irrelevance of the fact that the winning tender was 40% below the maximum budget set by the Commission (and that the challengers' offer was itself 32% below maximum budget) rests on the inaccuracy of the budget set by the Commission. Apparently, when setting the maximum budget, the Commission had failed to take into account sharp reductions in the cost of providing the services now (re)tendered (para 49). Thus, the GC was satisfied that the discrepancy between maximum budget and actual offers was a result of the Commission's inaccurate budgeting rather that of abnormal low prices included in the offers. Logically, this makes sense and it could have well been the case. It does, however, raise important concerns about the accuracy and usefulness of budgeting for public contracts under the Financial Regulations--but that is probably a discussion to be had some other time.

(ii) The reasoning of the GC concerning the 11% discrepancy between the lowest (winning) tender and the next (challenger) tender is also interesting. As a matter of general consideration, the GC stresses that "[a]n offer may be cheaper than another without being abnormally low" (para 58) and that "[t]his also applies to a situation in which the tender price of the successful tenderer is lower than that of the tender of the incumbent provider. Otherwise, the incumbent provider could systematically question the reliability of the cheaper offers of the other tenderers, even if they are not abnormally low, but only economically more advantageous" (para 59, own translation from French). In that connection, it is important to stress that the GC sets aside as insufficient reasons to trigger an in-depth assessment of the challenger's offer as apparently abnormally low, the claims brought forward by TV1 that it had to make significant investments when it was first awarded the contract now (re)tendered, and that an expert should be appointed to check that the winning tenderer "should have incurred expenses comparable to those which the [incumbent] had had to bear several years previously in order to be able to supply the services covered by the earlier contract" (para 67, own translation from French). This is interesting because it avoids an analysis of sunk costs that could, otherwise, advantage the incumbent [for related analysis, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 412 ff].

Overall, then, the GC's assessment of the reasons adduced by TV1 to justify the existence of an obligation on the part of the Commission to engage in an in-depth investigation of the winning tender as apparently abnormally low is sound and should be welcome.

Abnormally low tenders (II): Procedural Aspects

Judgment of 2 February 2017,  European Dynamics Luxembourg and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-74/15, not published, EU:T:2017:55. In this case, the tendered contract concerned the provision of IT services relating to off-site information systems development, studies and support. The tender was for the conclusion of a framework agreement which would operate on the basis of mini-competitions.

The challenge brought by European Dynamics concerned the rejection of two specific requests for quotations as a result of two such mini-competitions. One of the challenges concerned an allegation that the chosen quotation was abnormally low, and the legal basis on which it is founded concerns a failure to provide reasons for a dismissal of the claim that the winning quotation was not abnormally low (ie a breach of Arts 113(2) of the Financial Regulation and Art 161(2) of its Implementing Regulation, as cited above). Thus, in this case, the challenge is not based primarily on the dismissal of reasons adduced to create or justify an appearance of abnormality in a tender, but rather on the absence of motivation for that result.

The GC thus takes a very different approach in this case and, rather than concentrating on the elements under which the discretion of the contracting authority is assessed in relation to its determination of whether a tender is seemingly abnormally low or not (as above), on this occasion the GC concentrates on the duty to give reasons as the main check and balance of such discretion, as well as a necessary procedural step in order to preserve the procedural rights of tenderers for public contracts (paras 35-41). From this perspective, the GC stresses that

In the present case, it is apparent ... that the applicants expressly requested clarification from the Commission in order to demonstrate that the price offered by the successful tenderer was not abnormally low ... the Commission confirmed that its [debriefing] letter ... contained its reply in that regard. So far as concerns the nature of the tender selected [in the specific mini-competition] it is apparent from the last page of that letter that the Commission merely stated, in a single sentence, that ‘“the winning offer” of the IPT tender did not fall under the case of “abnormally low” offers.’ (para 45, emphasis added).

The legal issue in front of the GC was, consequently, whether such brief dismissal of the allegation brought forward by European Dynamics sufficed to meet the relevant threshold for the purposes of the duty to provide reasons. As could be expected, the GC does not offer a positive answer. It stresses that

... the single sentence in the letter ... stating that the tender was not abnormally low does not fulfil the duties assigned to the obligation to state reasons, that is, the reasons must be disclosed clearly and unequivocally so as, on the one hand, to make the persons concerned aware of the reasons for the measure and thereby enable them to defend their rights and, on the other, to enable the Court to exercise its power of review. It cannot be accepted that a contracting authority should explain the not abnormally low nature of a tender merely by stating that such was considered not to be the case (para 47, emphasis added).

The GC does not stop there and goes to the extra length of consolidating the substantive standard applicable to the reasons that should be given in order to discharge this duty vis-a-vis a claim concerning the abnormally low nature of a tender. The consolidation of the standard is rather formulaic and may be seen to follow too closely the specific aspects which the Financial Regulation sets out to be possible cause for the abnormality of low values in a tender (eg non-compliance with employment and social law), but it can be a generally useful benchmark in that it clarifies that

... requiring the contracting authority to present the grounds on the basis of which an offer was not considered to be abnormally low does not require it to disclose precise information on the technical and financial aspects of that tender, such as the prices offered or the resources that the successful bidder proposes to use in order to provide the services that it offers. In order to provide a sufficient statement of reasons for that aspect of the selected tender, the contracting authority must set out the reasoning on the basis of which, on the one hand, it concluded that, because of its principally financial characteristics, such an offer complied with the national legislation of the country in which the services were to be carried out in respect of the remuneration of staff, contribution to the social security scheme and compliance with occupational safety and health standards and, on the other, it determined that the proposed price included all the costs arising from the technical aspects of the selected tender ... Accordingly, the Commission’s argument that the tenders in the present case had not raised any doubts that they were not abnormally low and that there was therefore no other information which it could have provided to the applicants must be rejected. (para 49, references omitted and emphasis added).

This comes to clarify that, even if the contracting authority does not think that there is a need to engage in an in-depth assessment of the (winning) tender to determine if it is abnormally low, it must at all times be in a position to provide the reasons why it did not think that was the case. Overall, this seems adequate, although it continues a line of case law that tends to create a significant burden at debriefing stage and that can trigger significant concerns of excessive transparency of commercially-sensitive information between competitors, as the GC's relatively open-ended requirement in para 49 of the Judgment may be difficult to square with the contracting authority's obligation not to disclose information in a way that could alter competition [on that, generally, 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" (2013). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11]. 

A Tricky Jurisdictional Point

Judgment of 17 February 2017, European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EMA, T-441/15, not published, EU:T:2017:104. The tender in this case concerned the provision of IT services through a framework agreement that included a cascade mechanism for the allocation of call-off contracts within the framework (for a reference to previous litigation concerning this type of mechanism, see here). European Dynamics was awarded the second-tier framework agreement. At the relevant time, EMA asked European Dynamics for CVs of its candidates for the position of project manager for a given contract. EMA rejected all 5 candidates presented by European Dynamics, and this triggered the challenge.

From a jurisdictional perspective, the difficulty in this case was to determine whether EMA's rejection of the candidates put forward by European Dynamics was a decision of an EU Institution challengeable before the CJEU (GC) under its competence as per Art 263 TFEU. In that regard, the GC stressed that "[i]t must be borne in mind that, under Article 263 TFEU, the [Court] only reviews the legality of acts adopted by the institutions intended to produce legal effects vis-à-vis third parties, significantly by altering their legal position" (para 18, own translation from French). The key question was thus whether EMA's rejection of European Dynamic candidates fell within this jurisdictional framework. 

The GC distinguished this case from the previous analysis in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, EU:T:2014:831 (for discussion see here) on the basis that, "[t]he present case differs from [case T-498/11] in that [in the previous instance,] the specific contracts had not yet been awarded but had to be awarded on the basis of 'mini-competitions' between the selected 'framework contractors' ... [whereas] in the present case, as regards the implementation of a multiple framework contract with cascade allocation, the specific contract has already been allocated according to the position of the economic operators in the cascade, without the need for any further competition between those [economic operators]. Therefore, if the first economic operator is unable to provide the required service or not interested in doing so, the second best operator will be contacted. If the latter is unable to provide the required service or is not interested, then the third best operator will be contacted" (para 24, own translation from French).

Without any additional reasoning, the GC concludes that "the claim for annulment must be declared inadmissible in so far as it is based on Article 263 TFEU" (para 27), on the (implicit) basis that EMA's decision to reject European Dynamic's candidates falls strictly within a pre-established contractual relationship. In the specific case, the CJEU's jurisdiction is saved by the existence of a compromissory clause compatible with Art 272 TFEU in the framework agreement signed between EMA and European Dynamics (para 20), as well as due to the fact that EMA did not challenge the reclassification of the claim for annulment as a contractual claim (para 16). However, it is easy to see how the approach adopted by the GC could have left the claim in limbo -- and possibly time-barred ... -- had it not been by EMA's willingness to deal with the claim in a principled and open manner. Moreover, even if the GC's strictly literal interpretation was right (of which I am not convinced), there would be normative issues concerning the different treatment of functionally identical decisions depending on the type of framework agreement that European Institutions chose to conclude.

Overall, I would suggest that this case should work as a cautionary tale and that the scope of the jurisdiction of the CJEU (GC) to review acts of the European Institutions that, despite taking part within a contractual setting still carry (sufficient) connotations of the exercise of a public power (something the GC only lightly touched upon in this Judgment, at para [22]), requires some rethinking.

A very expensive slip of the pen? GC takes hard line in assessment of debriefing letter and awards compensation for loss of opportunity (T-299/11)

In its Judgment of 7 October 2015 in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v OHIM, T-299/11, EU:T:2015:757, the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) has once again revised the conclusion of framework agreements that include a cascade mechanism for the allocation of call-off contracts within the framework (see previous case Evropaïki Dynamiki v EASA, T-297/09, EU:T:2015:184 and comments here).

On this occasion, the GC considered that OHIM infringed the applicable procurement rules and determined that European Dynamics is entitled to compensation for the loss of an opportunity to be awarded the framework contract as the contractor ranked first in the cascade. Looking at the reasoning of the GC can be of interest.

In the Judgment, the GC finds that OHIM incurred in several substantive and formal errors in the evaluation of tenders leading up to the eventually quashed award decision. In my view, some of the substantive claims result from the not very careful drafting of the debriefing letter sent by OHIM to European Dynamics, which is very unfortunate. The point that I consider more troublesome from a practical perspective is as follows.

In the tender documentation, and amongst (very!) many other technical issues, tenderers were informed that part of the evaluation would rely on their project management strategy. As the GC explains (T-299/11, para 6), this was formulated in award criterion 1, according to which
[Award] Criterion 1: based on its methodology and experience, the tenderer must present the tasks and activities he/she would perform in terms of project management. This includes in particular (but not exclusively):

a. Progress control [that is to say checking the progress of the work];
b. Issue management process;
c. Change management process;
d. Escalations;
e. Lessons learnt programme;
f. Communications plan;
g. Deliverable acceptance procedures
(maximum 40 points with a minimum threshold of 20 points);
European Dynamics did not receive the highest score under this criterion. When it requested further details of the evaluation under criterion 1 from OHIM, it received a letter whereby it was explained that "the offers with very good or excellent criterion 1 ... “Identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project”" (T-299/11, paras 23 and 41).

On this particular point, and in view of this (possibly less than careful) drafting of the debriefing letter, European Dynamics complained that it was not clear "from the tender specifications that the two sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communication’ were, in OHIM’s view, the ‘most essential’. Accordingly, the contracting authority introduced, a posteriori, a new criterion and gave a new weighting to those sub-criteria" (T-299/11, para 42, emphasis added).

The GC upheld this complaint of European Dynamics with the following reasoning:
48 ... the Court finds that the applicants rightly argue that the contracting authority indeed gave to the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communication’ a more significant weight than the other criteria set out in the first award criterion. The reasons unambiguously set out in OHIM’s letter ... according to which the bids from the other successful tenderers ‘identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’, cannot be understood otherwise. It demonstrates that the contracting authority endorsed the approach proposed by the other successful tenderers on the basis of a weighting of those sub-criteria which is not clear from the wording of the first award criterion ... the contracting authority cannot apply a weighting of sub-criteria which it has not previously brought to the tenderers’ attention (see, to that effect, judgment of 24 January 2008 in Lianakis and Others, C-532/06, ECR, EU:C:2008:40, paragraph 38).
49 In that regard, first, it should be noted that the ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’ comprised only two sub-criteria among a set of seven sub-criteria which were listed at the same level and on a non-exclusive basis under the first award criterion, namely, progress control, issue management process, change management process, escalations, lessons learnt programme, communications plan and deliverable acceptance procedures, and in respect of which the contracting authority intended to award a maximum number of 40 points ... Nor is it apparent from the wording of that criterion or other relevant parts of the tender specifications that the contracting authority intended, where appropriate and for specific undisclosed reasons, to afford a different weight to those sub-criteria for the presentation of the project presented in Work Hypothesis No 1, or even to assign, when evaluating the bids submitted in the light of the first award criterion, higher or lower scores depending on whether those bids focused on either one or the other of those sub-criteria. That is particularly so, in respect of the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’, in respect of which it was not stated in the tender specifications that the contracting authority considered that they represented ‘the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’.
50 Second, in accordance with the general explanations, in the tender specifications, of the requirements which have to be fulfilled by the tenderers, those tenderers were invited to present ‘the tasks and activities to be executed to manage and successfully achieve the project presented in Work Hypothesis No 1’ which were set out in Annex 18 to the tender specifications and covered the establishment by OHIM of a ‘project to build an information system’. As a result, the description in the bids submitted of the tasks and the activities related to the various sub-criteria under the first award criterion referred necessarily to that project which was by definition the same for all tenderers.
51 In those circumstances, the phrase ‘identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’ can be understood only as comprising an absolute and general value judgment on the particular importance of the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’ (‘the most essential’) as part of the project envisaged by OHIM under Work Hypothesis No 1 (‘for the success of the project’), of which the bids of the other successful tenderers would have taken account, and, conversely, as a criticism of the first applicant’s bid for failing to have followed an approach similar to that proposed by those successful tenderers to that end.
52 In that regard, OHIM is not justified in claiming, in essence, that the reasoning referred to above should be understood as a value judgment on the sufficient quality of the bids of the other successful tenderers which was based on the identification of two specific sub-criteria, namely ‘change management’ and ‘communications’, since that judgment is not severable from a specifically abstract and preliminary upgrading of the sub-criteria as compared to the other five sub-criteria listed in the first award criterion. Moreover, if only for the reasons set out in paragraphs 48 to 51 above, it does not appear credible that the contracting authority failed to assign a specific number of points from the total of 40 points available to the various sub-criteria which were referred to therein ...
53 Thus, it must be concluded that the negative comparative judgment made by the contracting authority on the first applicant’s bid on that point has no support in the wording of the first award criterion. In particular, the weighting underlying that judgment did not appear to be sufficiently clear, precise and unequivocal from that criterion to enable all reasonably well-informed and normally diligent tenderers to understand their precise scope and to interpret them in the same manner. By applying, contrary to the requirements arising from the case-law ... a weighting of the various sub-criteria within that award criterion which was not provided for by the tender specifications or communicated in advance to the tenderers, OHIM therefore breached, to the detriment of the applicants, the principles of equal opportunities and transparency (T-299/11, paras 48-53, emphasis added).
Technically, the GC's argument is rather solid and, at least at a conceptual level, not much can be criticised. However, given its strong reliance on the specific wording of the letter and arguments concerning implicit underlying sub-criteria and their presumed weightings, it does not seem very persuasive because a more careful and nuanced drafting of the debriefing letter would have completely changed the assessment. 

Indeed, a worrying potential implication of the European Dynamics v OHIM Judgment is that it creates a very powerful incentive for contracting authorities to be disingenuous in their debriefing letters and, where several sub-criteria are listed in the tender documentation, to include references to all of them in the qualitative explanations of the superiority of the tenders chosen for award. 

Such 'holistic' approach to debriefing letter drafting would reduce the quality of the information disclosed--both for the tenderer (who is in any case probably not really seeking to understand the actual superiority of competing bids, but simply a way to litigate) and  also for the reviewing court (which will be receiving more general statements).

As an example, under the circumstances of the case, a debriefing letter with a statement such as ''the offers with very good or excellent criterion 1 ... [struck an appropriate balance between competing implementation needs and provided realistic strategies regarding] most essential tasks for the success of the project [including in particular (but not exclusively): progress control; issue management; change management; escalations; lessons learnt programme; communications plan; and deliverable acceptance procedures]”, would probably have sufficed to nullify European Dynamics' claim and, in my view, would not necessarily infringe the duty to provide reasons as it relates to qualitative technical assessments were technical discretion is rather wide (unless a disproportionately high burden of motivation was imposed, which cannot be completely discarded in view of previous decisions of the GC). In any case, this is just a rough and fast drafting and more considerate wording would probably strike a better balance between provision of reasons and avoidance of litigation.

However, such a debriefing letter would not be as good as the one provided by OHIM in the case at hand, where it naively (?) indicated the actual reasons it had considered to provide better quality management strategies, as it tried to explain to an unimpressed GC (para 52 above)--or, more simply, did not put a great deal of thought on the specific wording of the contentious paragraph of the debriefing letter, which it merely intended to provide qualitative feedback of a general nature. Thus, the European Dynamics v OHIM Judgment puts even more pressure on contracting authorities to be extremely careful in their debriefing (see here and here) and makes this task a nightmarish phase of the procurement process.

Given that such situations carry significant financial consequences (in this case, of an uncertain magnitude because the GC ordered OHIM and European Dynamics to agree between themselves the proper amount of compensation; see paras 149-157), this is an area of procurement practice where contracting authorities would be well advised to start investing more resources. 

At the same time, it is necessary to promote a change of mentality in courts and review bodies dealing with this type of cases, as decisions such as the GC Judgment in European Dynamics v OHIM clearly establish strong financial incentives to litigate and the position of the contracting authorities dealing with complex technical issues requiring qualitative/subjective assessments may be excessively weakened by taking such a hard line in the assessment of debriefing documentation.

GC stresses need for balanced protection of confidential information in public procurement (T-536/11)

In its Judgment in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Commission, T-536/11, EU:T:2015:476, the GC has dismissed a challenge against a European Commission's decision to limit the disclosure of (confidential) information made available to a disappointed tenderer. 

In the case at hand, the Commission had redacted some of the comments made by the evaluation team in order to protect business secrets of tenderers ranked higher than Evropaïki Dynamiki. The latter argued that, by doing so, the Commission failed to discharge its duty to give reasons for its decision not to rank Evropaïki Dynamiki first in the cascade mechanism that would determine call-offs within a framework agreement for software services. The GC dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the basis that the Commission had struck an appropriate balance between Evropaïki Dynamiki's right to access the information needed to defend its legal rights and third party business interests.

Some of the issues discussed (again) by the GC are worth mentioning, particularly as the duty to disclose the relative merits of the bids submitted by the successful tenderers is concerned (for a recent discussion, in relation to the UK's transposition of disclosure and debriefing rules in Directive 2014/24, see here).  The GC, with a good sense of the need to balance the right to be informed of the reasons for an award decision with the rights of competitors to have their business secrets protected, dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the following grounds:
48 ... although the applicants submit that the Commission must disclose the information concerning the other successful tenderers’ bids that could be considered to be confidential and state how those tenderers could be harmed by that disclosure, they merely make a general request, without indicating, in the part of the pleadings relating to that plea in law, the comments or the parts of the bids to which they refer, whose disclosure is allegedly necessary for effective legal and judicial protection.
49 It should be recalled that ... the contracting authority is entitled not to disclose certain details where disclosure would hinder application of the law, would be contrary to the public interest or would harm the legitimate business interests of public or private undertakings or could distort fair competition between those undertakings.
50 In addition, it is apparent from the case-law that, in the context of an action brought against a decision taken by a contracting authority in relation to a contract award procedure, the adversarial principle does not mean that the parties are entitled to unlimited and absolute access to all of the information relating to the award procedure concerned. On the contrary, that right of access must be balanced against the right of other economic operators to the protection of their confidential information and their business secrets. The principle of the protection of confidential information and of business secrets must be observed in such a way as to reconcile it with the requirements of effective legal protection and the rights of defence of the parties to the dispute and, in the case of judicial review, in such a way as to ensure that the proceedings as a whole accord with the right to a fair trial (see, to that effect, judgment of 23 November 2011 in bpost v Commission, T‑514/09, EU:T:2011:689, paragraph 25 and the case-law cited). It is apparent from the applicants’ detailed observations set out in their letter of 5 August 2011 that they had sufficient knowledge of the relative advantages of the other successful tenderers’ bids (T-536/11, paras 48 to 50, emphasis added).
The GC could not have expressed it in any clearer terms, and this line of reasoning clearly aims at reaching an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, facilitating access to procurement remedies by disclosing necessary information and, on the other hand, ensuring the protection of information which disclosure could have a negative effect on competition and/or harm legitimate business interests. 

This is a much needed restriction of the excessive level of transparency that oftentimes affects public procurement settings and, consequently, must be warmly welcomed [for 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 (University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11, 2013)].

What level of transparency for award/call-off decisions within framework agreements?

During several recent conversations with participants at the Global Revolution conference, and particularly with my colleague Dr Marta Andrecka and some members of the European Institutions, I have been asked repeatedly about my views on the level of transparency that should apply to award/call-off decisions within framework agreements. 

There is no doubt that full transparency is mandated regarding the conclusion of the framework agreement itself and, subject to my general concerns about excessive transparency (here), I agree that this is the existing legal situation. However, there is significant uncertainty and an ongoing practical debate regarding the level of 'intra-framework' transparency that the EU rules require (as well as the applicability of rules on award criteria to those decisions, but that is a topic for another day).

There is no rule that expressly covers this issue from the perspective of the individual rights of information of contractors/tenderers either under Article 55 of Directive 2014/24 or reg.55 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR2015), which only make reference to transparency/debriefing obligations related to the conclusion (or not) of the framework agreement itself, but not the subsequent awards/call-offs within the framework. This creates uncertainty as to the applicability of these (or analogous) rights to be informed in relation to intra-framework awards/call-offs [for in-depth discussion, see S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement. Regulation in the EU and UK, 3rd edn., vol. 1 (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2014) 1153 and ff, esp 1156-57, and 1347].

More generally, when it comes to transparency of the awards/call-offs within framework agreements, the general transparency rules are clearly limited in Art 50 Dir 2014/24, according to which "[i]n the case of framework agreements... contracting authorities shall not be bound to send a notice of the results of the procurement procedure for each contract based on that agreement. Member States may provide that contracting authorities shall group notices of the results of the procurement procedure for contracts based on the framework agreement on a quarterly basis. In that case, contracting authorities shall send the grouped notices within 30 days of the end of each quarter." 

As I criticised in relation to reg.50 PCR2015 [see here], the drafting of this clause may make it susceptible of being interpreted as fully discretionary for Member States, which could opt  (like the UK) for not imposing any sort of transparency obligation (quarterly, or otherwise) connected to the results of the procurement procedure for contracts based on the framework agreement. I argued that such an approach could be an infringement of EU law and, more specifically, the requirements of the principle of transparency in Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24.

To my surprise (I should have known, though), the uncertainty seems to be much more limited when it comes to the draft new procurement rules for the European Institutions under the foreseen 2016 Financial Regulation (proposal available here), which Art 113 [equivalent to Art 55 Dir 2014/24] expressly excludes almost all 'intra-framework' transparency when it comes to award/call-off decisions. According to that provision,
2. The contracting authority shall notify all candidates or tenderers whose requests to participate or tenders are rejected of the grounds on which the decision was taken, as well as the duration of the standstill period referred to in Article 118(2). For the award of specific contracts under a framework contract with reopening of competition, the contracting authority shall inform the tenderers of the result of the evaluation.

3. The contracting authority shall inform each tenderer who is not in a situation of exclusion, whose tender is compliant with the procurement documents and who makes a request in writing of any of the following: (a) the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the tenderer to whom the contract is awarded, except in the case of a specific contract under a framework contract with reopening of competition;
(emphasis added).
This comes to determine that there is no transparency obligation whatsoever for award/call-off decisions that do not follow a 'mini-competition' and, in even in the case of such reopening of competition, the transparency obligation is limited to the evaluation (likely of their own tender), but does not seem to cover other aspects of the award/call-off decision. 

The European Court of Auditors criticised this situation in its January 2015 Opinion on the draft revised Financial Regulation (available here) in the following terms: "The proposed wording of Article 113(2)(2) and (3)(a) would not require the contracting authority, in the case of specific contracts awarded under a framework contract with reopening of competition, to notify the contractors whose tenders have been rejected of the reasons for their rejection, the relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the tenderer to whom the contract is awarded. This exception to the rules governing transparency and the obligation to state reasons cannot be justified" (para 37, emphasis added).

In my view, this is an indication that my previous assessment regarding the lack of compatibility with EU law of the total lack of transparency of intra-framework awards is not shared by the European Commission (unless that Institution is looking to impose stricter standards to Member States' procurement than to its own and that of the rest of European Institutions). It could also be that DG BUDGET has a more process-oriented (buyer) approach to procurement regulation than DG GROWTH, which would explain the difference in willingness to (self)impose transparency obligations. However, be it as it may, I still think that this is not a desirable regulatory option and I would like to see the proposal for a new Financial Regulation amended on this point.

I would not favour full transparency of intra-framework award decisions. However, I accept that contractors included in a framework agreement (and third parties) should be given information regarding the evolution of the intra-framework, at least of a 'historical' and overall nature, so that they can have a rough idea of how the implementation of the contract is being carried out. 

Moreover, there is no clear reason why frameworks would require being less transparent than dynamic purchasing systems (which are, in the end, open frameworks), particularly because the contracting authority is in a good position to identify any instances of intra-framework collusion in which the contractors could engage on the basis of the periodical reports they may get. 

Consequently, I would favour the creation of a system of delayed and grouped (quarterly) reporting of the intra-framework award/call-off decisions, along the lines of what Art 50(3) Dir 2014/24 and reg.50(5) PCR2015 establish for dynamic purchasing systems.

GPS' strategy and planning framework agreement could have been fatally flawed (or the joys of copy & paste)

The Government Procurement Service (GPS) has recently announced the entry into force of a new framework agreement for strategy & planning services that gives all public sector organisations access to 15 agencies providing strategic communications support including campaign strategy development, trend forecasting and target audience identification.  According to GPS,
The new framework makes the most of the public sector’s buying power and will deliver savings of up to £1 million a year for the taxpayer, whilst maximising the quality of innovative work offered by agencies. With 60% of suppliers on the framework being small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the new framework gives SMEs real opportunities to secure government contracts.
It is interesting to stress that the conclusion of this framework agreement could have been fatally flawed due to a significant oversight in the tender documentation--which originally failed to meet the fundamental requirement that 'multiparty' framework agreements must expressly indicate the contracting authorities that call-off work under the agreement.
Under Article 32(2)II of Directive 2004/18,
Contracts based on a framework agreement [...] may be applied only between the contracting authorities and the economic operators originally party to the framework agreement.
The European Commission has interpreted that requirement in the following terms:
in the case of a framework agreement concluded by a central purchasing body acting as an intermediary [...] it would not therefore be sufficient to indicate that the agreement can be used by “contracting authorities” established in the Member State in question. In fact, such an indication might not render it possible to identify the entities that are parties to the agreement due to the difficulties that may arise in determining whether an entity does or does not meet the definition of a body governed by public law. On the other hand, a description permitting immediate identification of the contracting authorities concerned — for example “the municipalities of x province or of y region” – renders it possible to verify that the provision of Article 32(2), second indent has been observed.
Such a requirement is well-know to GPS since, under its previous existence as the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), it published Guidance on Framework Agreements where it went beyond the interpretation of the European Commission and indicated that
When class descriptions do not allow ‘immediate identification of the contracting authorities concerned”, a reference to where details of the authorities covered can be obtained should be included in the notice. For example, if there is an accessible list of contracting authorities in a relevant “class”, or an organisation with responsibility for maintaining details of the members of a “class”, that list or organisation should be quoted in the Contract Notice and, where possible, a link to this information included.
In view of all such guidance as to the required level of precision of the scope of application of framework agreements, it seems rather clear that the initial tender documentation for GPS' strategy & planning services framework was indeed incomplete. The Schedule of Requirements for the tender indicated that
Full details of the Contracting Bodies eligible to access the Strategy and Planning Framework Agreement, can be found in the OJEU Contract Notice. Only those listed (including the organisations described on the appropriate webpage links) will be able to access the Framework Agreement.
However, in the notice sent to the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), there was no such list. GPS indicated that
Government Procurement Service as the Contracting Authority is putting in place a Pan Government Collaborative Framework Public Sector bodies have a need for a range of strategy & planning services within the communications / marketing sector. This requirement is not seeking market research, creative or mediabuying services. Agreement for use by the UK public sector bodies identified at VI.3 (and any future successors to these organisations), which include Central Government Departments and their Arm's Length Bodies and Agencies, Non Departmental Public Bodies, NHS bodies and Local Authorities.
And the, in the relevant part of the notice (VI.3), it is simply stated that:
Government Procurement Service wishes to establish a Framework Agreement for use by the following UK public sector bodies (and any future successors to these organisations): “Copy the latest version of the Customer List here (emphasis added). 
Now, this may just seem too embarrassing to be true (where are the proof-readers?), but such a failure to include the list of contracting authorities that can resort to the framework agreement to call-off contracts for strategy & planning services would have rendered the whole framework agreement ineffective under EU public procurement rules.
Luckily, someone eventually spotted the mistake and GPS published an addition to the original OJEU notice, where a full list of 'classes' of contracting entities and public bodies (with weblinks to further developed lists) was included. GPS has not kept this additional publication in its publicly available file, so it took some digging to find it out. However, it is clear to me that the initial omission has been effectively corrected.
Nonetheless, I think that the case is still worth considering a bit further. In case the additional information had not been published and some litigation followed the conclusion of the framework agreement, it would all have boiled down to determining whether the ommission of the specific list of bodies covered by the framework agreement was cured or covered by the general description that the agreement would have been available to 'Government Departments and their Arm's Length Bodies and Agencies, Non Departmental Public Bodies, NHS bodies and Local Authorities.'
In my view, such a description would have been too vague to meet the requirements of current Article 32(2)II of Directive 2004/18. This conclusion may be slightly less clear under the future rules on framework agreements, as Article 31(2)II of the new public sector procurement Directive is bound to mandate that
Contracts based on a framework agreement [...] may be applied only between those contracting authorities clearly identified for this purpose in the call for competition or the invitation to confirm interest and those economic operators party to the framework agreement as concluded.
However, I would submit that the 'clearly identified' prong of the test still would need to follow the guidance provided by the European Commission and OGC (discussed above), so that at least a reference to where details of the authorities covered can be obtained should be included in the notice.