'Experimental' WEF/UK Guidelines for AI Procurement: some comments

ⓒ Scott Richard, Liquid painting (2015).

ⓒ Scott Richard, Liquid painting (2015).

On 20 September 2019, and as part of its ‘Unlocking Public Sector Artificial Intelligence’ project, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the White Paper Guidelines for AI Procurement (see also press release), with which it seeks to help governments accelerate efficiencies through responsible use of artificial intelligence and prepare for future risks. WEF indicated that over the next six months, governments around the world will test and pilot these guidelines (for now, there are indications of adoption in the UK, the United Arab Emirates and Colombia), and that further iterations will be published based on feedback learned on the ground.

Building on previous work on the Data Ethics Framework and the Guide to using AI in the Public Sector, the UK’s Office for Artificial Intelligence has decided to adopt its own draft version of the Guidelines for AI Procurement with substantially the same content, but with modified language and a narrower scope of some principles, in order to link them to the UK’s legislative and regulatory framework (and, in particular, the Data Ethics Framework). The UK will be the first country to trial the guidelines in pilot projects across several departments. The UK Government hopes that the new Guidelines for AI Procurement will help inform and empower buyers in the public sector, helping them to evaluate suppliers, then confidently and responsibly procure AI technologies for the benefit of citizens.

In this post, I offer some first thoughts about the Guidelines for AI Procurement, based on the WEF’s version, which is helpfully summarised in the table below.

Source: WEF, White Paper: ‘Guidelines for AI Procurement’ at 6.

Source: WEF, White Paper: ‘Guidelines for AI Procurement’ at 6.

Some Comments

Generally, it is worth being mindful that the ‘guidelines provide fundamental considerations that a government should address before acquiring and deploying AI solutions and services. They apply once it has been determined that the solution needed for a problem could be AI-driven’ (emphasis in original). As the UK’s version usefully stresses, many of the important decisions take place at the preparation and planning stages, before publishing a contract notice. Therefore, more than guidance for AI procurement, this is guidance on the design of a framework for the governance of innovative digital technologies procurement, including AI (but easily extendable to eg blockchain-based solutions), which will still require a second tier of (future/additional) guidance on the implementation of procurement procedures for the acquisition of AI-based solutions.

It is also worth stressing from the outset that the guidelines assume both the availability and a deep understanding by the contracting authority of the data that can be used to train and deploy the AI solutions, which is perhaps not fully reflective of the existing difficulties concerning the availability and quality of procurement data, and public sector data more generally [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Data-Driven and Digital Procurement Governance: Revisiting Two Well-Known Elephant Tales' (2019) Communications Law, forthcoming]. Where such knowledge is not readily available, it seems likely that the contracting authority may require the prior engagement of data consultants that could carry out an assessment of the data that is or could be available and its potential uses. This creates the need to roll-back some of the considerations included in the guidelines to that earlier stage, much along the lines of the issues concerning preliminary market consultations and the neutralisation of any advantages or conflicts of interest of undertakings involved in pre-tender discussions, which are also common issues with non-AI procurement of innovation. This can be rather tricky, in particular if there is a significant imbalance in expertise around data science and/or a shortfall in those skills in the contracting authority. Therefore, perhaps as a prior recommendation (or an expansion of guideline 7), it may be worth bearing in mind that the public sector needs to invest significant resources in hiring and retaining the necessary in-house capacities before engaging in the acquisition of complex (digital) technologies.

1. Use procurement processes that focus not on prescribing a specific solution, but rather on outlining problems and opportunities and allow room for iteration.

The fit of this recommendation with the existing regulation of procurement procedures seems to point towards either innovation partnerships (for new solutions) or dynamic purchasing systems (for existing or relatively off-the-shelf solutions). The reference to dynamic purchasing systems is slightly odd here, as solutions are unlikely to be susceptible of automatic deployment in any given context.

Moreover, this may not necessarily be the only possible approach under EU law and there seems to be significant scope to channel technology contests under the rules for design contests (Arts 78 and ff of Directive 2014/24/EU). The limited appetite of innovative start-ups for procurement systems that do not provide them with ‘market exposure’ (such as large framework agreements, but likely also dynamic purchasing systems) may be relevant, depending on market conditions (see eg PUBLIC, Buying into the Future. How to Deliver Innovation through Public Procurement (2019) 23). This could create opportunities for broader calls for technological innovation, perhaps as a phase prior to conducting a more structured (and expensive) procurement procedure for an innovation partnership.

All in all, it would seem like—at least at UK level, or in any other jurisdictions seeking to pilot the guidance—it could be advisable to design a standard procurement procedure for AI-related market engagement, in order to avoid having each willing contracting authority having to reinvent the wheel.

2. Define the public benefit of using AI while assessing risks.

Like with many other aspects of the guidelines, one of the difficulties here is to try to establish actionable measures to deal with ‘unknown unknowns’ that may emerge only in the implementation phase, or well into the deployment of the solution. It would be naive to assume that the contracting authority—or the potential tenderers—can anticipate all possible risks and design adequate mitigating strategies. It would thus perhaps be wise to recommend the use of AI solutions for public sector / public service use cases that have a limited impact on individual rights, as a way to gain much necessary expertise and know-how before proceeding to deployment in more sensitive areas.

Moreover, this is perhaps the recommendation that is more difficult to instrument in procurement terms (under the EU rules), as the consideration of ‘public benefit’ seems to be a matter for the contracting authority’s sole assessment, which could eventually lead to a cancellation—with or without retendering—of the procurement. It is difficult to see how to design evaluation tools (in terms of both technical specifications and award criteria) capable of capturing the insight that ‘public benefit extends beyond value for money and also includes considerations about transparency of the decision-making process and other factors that are included in these guidelines’. This should thus likely be built into the procurement process through opportunities for the contracting authority to discontinue the project (with no or limited compensation), which also points towards the structure of the innovation partnership as the regulated procedure most likely to fit.

3. Aim to include your procurement within a strategy for AI adoption across government and learn from others.

This is mainly aimed at ensuring cross-sharing of experiences and at concentrating the need for specific AI-based solutions, which makes sense. The difficulty will be in the practical implementation of this in a quickly-changing setting, which could be facilitated by the creation of a mandatory (not necessarily public) centralised register of AI-based projects, as well as the consideration of the creation and mandatory involvement of a specialised administrative unit. This would be linked to the general comment on the need to invest in skills, but could alleviate the financial impact by making the resources available across Government rather than having each contracting authority create its own expert team.

4. Ensure that legislation and codes of practice are incorporated in the RFP.

Both aspects of this guideline are problematic to a lawyer’s eyes. It is not a matter of legal imperialism to simply consider that there have to be more general mechanisms to ensure that procurement procedures (not only for digital technologies) are fully legally compliant.

The recommendation to carry out a comprehensive review of the legal system to identify all applicable rules and then ‘Incorporate those rules and norms into the RFP by referring to the originating laws and regulations’ does not make a lot of sense, since the inclusion or not in the RFP does not affect the enforceability of those rules, and given the practical impossibility for a contracting authority to assess the entirety of rules applicable to different tenderers, in particular if they are based in other jurisdictions. It would also create all sorts of problems in terms of potential claims of legitimate expectations by tenderers. Moreover, under EU law, there is case law (such as Pizzo and Connexxion Taxi Services) that creates conflicting incentives for the inclusion of specific references to rules and their interpretation in tender documents.

The recommendation on balancing trade secret protection and public interest, including data privacy compliance, is just insufficient and falls well short of the challenge of addressing these complex issues. The tension between general duties of administrative law and the opacity of algorithms (in particular where they are protected by IP or trade secrets protections) is one of the most heated ongoing debates in legal and governance scholarship. It also obviates the need to distinguish between the different rules applicable to the data and to the algorithms, as well as the paramount relevance of the General Data Protection Regulation in this context (at least where EU data is concerned).

5. Articulate the technical feasibility and governance considerations of obtaining relevant data.

This is, in my view, the strongest part of the guidelines. The stress on the need to ensure access to data as a pre-requisite for any AI project and the emphasis and detail put in the design of the relevant data governance structure ahead of the procurement could not be clearer. The difficulty, however, will be in getting most contracting authorities to this level of data-readiness. As mentioned above, the guidelines assume a level of competence that seems too advanced for most contracting authorities potentially interested in carrying out AI-based projects, or that could benefit from them.

6. Highlight the technical and ethical limitations of using the data to avoid issues such as bias.

This guideline is also premised on advanced knowledge and understanding of the data by the contracting authority, and thus creates the same challenges (as further discussed below).

7. Work with a diverse, multidisciplinary team.

Once again, this will be expensive and create some organisational challenges (as also discussed below).

8. Focus throughout the procurement process on mechanisms of accountability and transparency norms.

This is another rather naive and limited aspect of the guidelines, in particular the final point that ‘If an algorithm will be making decisions that affect people’s rights and public benefits, describe how the administrative process would preserve due process by enabling the contestability of automated decision-making in those circumstances.' This is another of the hotly-debated issues surrounding the deployment of AI in the public sector and it seems unlikely that a contracting authority will be able to provide the necessary answers to issues that are yet to be determined—eg the difficult interpretive issues surrounding solely automated processing of personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation, as discussed in eg M Finck, ‘Automated Decision-Making and Administrative Law’ (2019) Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition Research Paper No. 19-10.

9. Implement a process for the continued engagement of the AI provider with the acquiring entity for knowledge transfer and long-term risk assessment.

This is another area of general strength in the guidelines, which under EU procurement law should be channeled through stringent contract performance conditions (Art 70 Directive 2014/24/EU) or, perhaps even better, by creating secondary regulation on mandatory on-going support and knowledge transfer for all AI-based implementations in the public sector.

The only aspect of this guideline that is problematic concerns the mention that, in relation to ethical considerations, ‘Bidders should be able not only to describe their approach to the above, but also to provide examples of projects, complete with client references, where these considerations have been followed.’ This would clearly be a problem for new entrants, as well as generate rather significant first-mover advantages for undertakings with prior experience (likely in the private sector). In my view, this should be removed from the guidelines.

10. Create the conditions for a level and fair playing field among AI solution providers.

This section includes significant challenges concerning issues related to the ownership of IP on AI-based solutions. Most of the recommendations seem rather complicated to implement in practice, such as the reference to the need to ‘Consider strategies to avoid vendor lock-in, particularly in relation to black-box algorithms. These practices could involve the use of open standards, royalty-free licensing and public domain publication terms’, or to ‘'consider whether [the] department should own that IP and how it would control it [in particular in the context of evolution or new design of the algorithms]. The arrangements should be mutually beneficial and fair, and require royalty-free licensing when adopting a system that includes IP controlled by a vendor’. These are also extremely complex and debated issues and, once again, it seems unlikely that a contracting authority will be able to provide all relevant answers.

Overall assessment

The main strength of the guidelines lies in its recommendations concerning the evaluation of data availability and quality, as well as the need to create robust data governance frameworks and the need to have a deep insight into data limitations and biases (guidelines 5 and 6). There are also some useful, although rather self-explanatory reminders of basic planning issues concerning the need to ensure the relevant skillset and the unavoidable multidisciplinarity of teams working in AI (guidelines 3 and 7). Similarly, the guidelines provide some very high-level indications on how to structure the procurement process (guidelines 1, 2 and 9), which will however require much more detailed (future/additional) guidance before they can be implemented by a contracting authority.

However, in all other aspects, the guidelines work as an issue-spotting instrument rather than as a guidance tool. This is clearly the case concerning the tensions between data privacy, good administration and proprietary protection of the IP and trade secrets underlying AI-based solutions (guidelines 4, 8 and 10). In my view, rather than taking the naive—and potentially misleading—approach of indicating the issues that contracting authorities need to address (in the RFP, or elsewhere) as if they were currently (easily, or at all) addressable at that level of administrative practice, the guidelines should provide sufficiently precise and goal-oriented recommendations on how to do so if they are to be useful. This is not an easy task and much more work seems necessary before the document can provide useful support to contracting authorities seeking to implement procedures for the procurement of AI-based solutions. I thus wonder how much learning can the guidelines generate in the pilots to be conducted in the UK and elsewhere. For now, I would recommend other governments to wait and see before ‘adopting’ the guidelines or treating them as a useful policy tool, in particular if that discouraged them from carrying out their own efforts in developing actionable guidance on how to procure AI-based solutions.

Finally, it does not take much reading between the lines to realise that the challenges of developing an enabling data architecture and upskilling the public sector (not solely the procurement workforce, and perhaps through specialised units, as a first step) so that it is able to identify the potential for AI-based solutions and to adequately govern their design and implementation remain as very likely stumbling blocks in the road towards deployment of public sector AI. In that regard, general initiatives concerning the availability of quality procurement data and the necessary reform of public procurement teams to fill the data science and programming gaps that currently exist should remain the priority—at least in the EU, as discussed in A Sanchez-Graells, EU Public Procurement Policy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Pushing and Pulling as One? (2019) SSRN working paper, and in idem, 'Some public procurement challenges in supporting and delivering smart urban mobility: procurement data, discretion and expertise', in M Finck, M Lamping, V Moscon & H Richter (eds), Smart Urban Mobility – Law, Regulation, and Policy, MPI Studies on Intellectual Property and Competition Law (Berlin, Springer, 2020) forthcoming.

CJEU rules on Greek Support to The Agricultural Sector under the 2008 and 2009 State Aid Frameworks: A Blow to the Commission's Waiver of Discretion? (C-431/14 P)

In its Judgment of 8 March 2016 in Greece v Commission (ELGA), C-431/14 P, EU:C:2016:145, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on the compatibility of certain measures of financial support to the Greek agricultural sector in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis with the EU rules on State aid--ie mainly, Art 107 TFEU and the Temporary Community Framework for State aid measures adopted by the Commission in 2008 (the 2008 TCF), as amended in 2009 (the 2009 amended TCF).

The Judgment is interesting because it assesses the boundaries of the temporary discretionary measures adopted by the Commission in order to flexibilise the enforcement of EU rules in times of economic and financial distress, on the basis that they aim 'to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State', ex Art 107(3)(b) TFEU. In particular, the ELGA Judgment assesses whether Member States can validly raise arguments based on Art 107(3)(b) TFEU directly, regardless of the Commission's delineation of its State aid policy based on that same legal basis. Or, in simple terms, whether a valid Art 107(3)(b) TFEU can exist outside of the (temporary) scope of the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. The case may seem very specific because of its link to the economic crisis. However, the CJEU makes some broader points about the Commission's discretion that are worth taking into careful consideration.

This discussion is relevant from a legal perspective, due to the clarification of the so far unknown exemption of the State aid prohibition of Art 107(1) TFEU on the basis of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU regarding aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State' [see P Nicolaides & IE Rusu, 'The Financial Crisis and State Aid' (2010) 55(4) The Antitrust Bulletin 759-782]. It is also relevant for the policy implications of the CJEU's support for the Commission's intervention [for discussion of a general framework, see H Kassim & B Lyons, 'The New Political Economy of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 1-21; and TJ Doleys, 'Managing the Dilemma of Discretion: The European Commission and the Development of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 23-38].

The case of the Greek support to the agricultural sector through ELGA

The specific case concerns a long-running action of the Greek State for the annulment of a 2011 Commission Decision concerning compensation payments made by the Greek Agricultural Insurance Organisation (ELGA) in 2008 and 2009, which the General Court (GC) upheld on appeal (T‑52/12, EU:T:2014:677). One of the difficulties with this case is the sequence of events. From the regulatory perspective, it is worth stressing that the 2008 TCF, which entered into force in 17 December 2008, did not cover aid to the agricultural sector. This was eventually made clear in the 2009 amended TCF, according to which

The possibility under [the TCF] to grant a compatible limited amount of aid does not apply to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products. Farmers, however, encounter increased difficulties to obtain credit as a consequence of the financial crisis ... it is appropriate to introduce a separate compatible limited amount of aid for undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products.

Specifically, the 2009 amended TCF provided that

The Commission will consider such State aid compatible with the common market on the basis of Article [107(3)(b) TFEU], provided all the following conditions are met: ... (h) … Where the aid is granted to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products ..., the cash grant (or gross grant equivalent) does not exceed EUR 15,000 per undertaking ...

This took effect on 28 October 2009, which raises a practical temporary difficulty because, '[f]ollowing protests in January 2009 by a large number of Greek agricultural producers about the losses suffered by them in 2008 as a result of adverse weather conditions..., the Hellenic Republic provided that compensation aid of EUR 425 million would be paid to producers on an exceptional basis by ELGA' (C-431/14 P, para 11). Upon investigation, the Commission found that most of that aid was incompatible with the internal market and, in particular, that '[t]he compensation aid of EUR [387.4 million] granted to producers on dates before 28 October 2009 is incompatible with the internal market' (C-431/14 P, para 14, emphasis added).

The issue is that, in plain terms, the Commission rejected Greece's claims that the exemption foreseen in Art 107(3)(b) TFEU could be directly applied in the case because of the economic difficulties that Greece had been experiencing. The Commission rejected such claim on the basis that Art 107(3)(b) TFEU had to be applied within the boundaries of the policy documents developed to that effect, ie the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF, which could only apply for the future--that is, only from their respective dates of entry into force--which, as the agricultural sector is concerned, was that of the 2009 amended TCF: 28 October 2009. The GC upheld the Commission's approach in the following terms

185 ... it is clear that, contrary to what the Hellenic Republic claims, the Commission had to base its decision on the [TCF] and not directly apply Article 107(3)(b) TFEU in order to assess the compatibility of the payments made by ELGA in 2009 on account of the economic crisis experienced in Greece.
186 It is clear from the case-law that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (see judgment[s] in Germany and Others v Kronofrance, [C‑75/05 P and C‑80/05 P, EU:C:2008:482], paragraph 60 and the case-law cited, and … Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, [EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 46).
187 ... in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines and notices that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the Treaty (see judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, [C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 47 and the case-law cited).
188 Therefore, it is necessary to reject the arguments of the Hellenic Republic to the effect that, on account of the serious disturbance in the Greek economy due to the economic crisis experienced in Greece since the end of 2008 and in 2009, the Commission should have declared the payments made by ELGA in 2009 compatible directly on the basis of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (T-52/12, paras 185-188, emphasis added).

The CJEU has now taken the same line of argument, but has introduced important nuances in determining that

69 ... as the General Court stated in paragraphs 186 and 187 of the judgment under appeal, the Court has also consistently held that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (judgments in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 46, and Banco Privado Português and Massa Insolvente do Banco Privado Português, C‑667/13, EU:C:2015:151, paragraph 69).
70 However, in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU, including, in particular, Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (see, to that effect, judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 47), and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State.
71      Consequently, first, the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU by adopting guidelines vitiated by an error of law or a manifest error of assessment, nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it. Further, when, in the exercise of that discretion, it adopts guidelines of that nature, these must be kept under continuous review for the purposes of anticipating any major developments not covered by those measures.
72      Secondly, the adoption of such guidelines does not relieve the Commission of its obligation to examine the specific exceptional circumstances relied on by a Member State, in a particular case, for the purpose of requesting the direct application of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU, and to provide reasons for its refusal to grant such a request, should the case arise.
73      In the present case, it is not in dispute that, precisely because of the effect of the economic crisis experienced by the Member States, and in particular, the Hellenic Republic, on the primary agricultural sector of the European Union, the Commission exercised the discretion conferred on it by Article 107(3)(b) TFEU by adopting the TCF and then the amended TCF, since both the former and the latter expressly mention that sector.
74      However, the fact remains that although the Hellenic Republic claimed before the General Court that Article 107(3)(b) TFEU ought to be applied directly to the facts of the case, notwithstanding the existence of the rules of conduct set out in the TCF and the amended TCF, it did not argue, in support of that claim, that there were, in the present case, specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned ...
75      Indeed, it is apparent from the documents in the file that the material that the Hellenic Republic put before the General Court was intended to establish the existence of a very serious disturbance affecting the Greek economy from the end of 2008 and in 2009, but it was not such as to prove to the requisite legal standard that that economy was faced with specific exceptional circumstances that ought, in this case, to have led the Commission to assess the aid at issue directly in the light of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (C-431/14 P, paras 69-75, emphasis added).

implications of the cjeu elga judgement

In my view, the implications of the case are two-fold, and they concern, first, the relationship between the Commission's disclosed State aid policy and the discretion that Art 107(3) TFEU gives it; and, second, the interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in particular.

Regarding the issue of the extent to which the Commission can deviate from adopted and publicised State aid policy, the CJEU has now made it clear that 'in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations' (para 69, emphasis added); and that 'the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU ... and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70, emphasis added). It is thus plain that 'the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU ... nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it' (para 71, emphasis added).

Somehow, the CJEU has made it clear that the Commission cannot hide behind its disclosed State aid policy if there are relevant circumstances that require a specific discretionary decision. This can be far reaching because the CJEU ELGA Judgment clearly opens the door to Member States' claims beyond the boundaries set by the Commission in its disclosed State aid policy, and may be the end of an era of increasing push for box-ticking exercises and for the Commission's reliance on its predetermined conditions for State aid exemption under block exemption regulations. This may well lead to an increase in litigation by Member States, which may be more willing to challenge the Commission's 'self-enforcement' approach in its recently adopted State aid 2.0 strategy [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement, forthcoming].

The bit that puzzles me is that, in the specific circumstances of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU and its use in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, the Commission had not disclosed any policy documents prior to the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. Thus, the issue whether the Commission could block any claims prior to the entry into force of those instruments could also have triggered an argument of retroactive application of beneficial discretionary measures, which I would have expected to read in a case like this. Somehow, the issue of the inter-temporal validity of policy and legal instruments in EU economic law continues to raise unresolved issues.

Regarding the specific interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, the implications of the ELGA Judgment are mixed. On the one hand, it seems clear that the CJEU recognises that Member States can claim the existence of specific circumstances in its economy, and this would tail up with the drafting of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which indicates that the exemption is available for aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State. On the other hand, though, the CJEU seems to require Member States to demonstrate that those circumstances 'distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70) and, in the specific case, 'specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned' (para 74). This seems problematic on two fronts.

First, it clearly goes beyond the wording of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which has no reference to specific sectors of the economy and seems to accept the possibility of exceptional rules aimed at a distressed economy as a whole. One is left with the doubt whether this requirement to have demonstrated specific exceptional circumstances in the agricultural sector derives from the CJEU's unwillingness to quash the Commission's decision--reading the case, it seems clear that the controversy about the existence of sufficient evidence in the file could have been a driver for this outcome--or, on the contrary, it is a purposeful interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in a way that reduces its scope. If the latter is the real reason, then the CJEU could have been more explicit in determining the parameters of such narrow interpreation, not least because of the absence of a sufficient volume of case law that interprets this provision.

And, second, it seems to create a significant limitation in the Member States' design of their macroeconomic (emergency) policies in a way that some could argue falls foul of the principle of subsidiarity. In that regard, the CJEU could have been more explicit as to the reasons for the imposition of a requirement of economic intervention in the specific sectors affected by the serious economic disturbance--which, in my view, would be relatively easy to support on the basis of the general requirements of suitability and proportionality applicable to State measures that aim to benefit from exemptions of Treaty prohibitions under EU economic law, generally.

New Year's Resolution: Fight Bid Rigging Effectively (OECD Recomm of 17 July 2012)

I know it might be a bit too soon to start thinking about New Year's Resolutions. However, around these dates, well organised public procurement and competition authorities should be planning their activities and enforcement priorities for 2013. Therefore, it might be a good time to suggest that they focus and deploy a sufficient amount of resources in giving effect to the OECD's 17 July 2012 Recommendation on Fighting Bid Rigging in Public Procurement.

The OECD's Recommendation captures most of the key elements that can make a public procurement system either pro-competitive or potentially distortive of market competition, and particularly sets out that
Members assess the various features of their public procurement laws and practices and their impact on the likelihood of collusion between bidders. Members should strive for public procurement tenders at all levels of government that are designed to promote more effective competition and to reduce the risk of bid rigging while ensuring overall value for money.
To this effect, officials responsible for public procurement at all levels of government should:
1.   Understand, in co-operation with sector regulators, the general features of the market in question, the range of products and/or services available in the market that would suit the requirements of the purchaser, and the potential suppliers of these products and/or services.
2.   Promote competition by maximising participation of potential bidders by:
i)   establishing participation requirements that are transparent, non-discriminatory, and that do not unreasonably limit competition;
ii)   designing, to the extent possible, tender specifications and terms of reference focusing on functional performance, namely on what is to be achieved, rather than how it is to be done, in order to attract to the tender the highest number of bidders, including suppliers of substitute products;
iii)   allowing firms from other countries or from other regions within the country in question to participate, where appropriate; and
iv)   where possible, allowing smaller firms to participate even if they cannot bid for the entire contract.
3.   Design the tender process so as to reduce the opportunities for communication among bidders, either before or during the tender process. For example, sealed-bid tender procedures should be favoured, and the use of clarification meetings or on-site visits attended personally by bidders should be limited where possible, in favour of remote procedures where the identity of the participants can be kept confidential, such as email communications and other web-based technologies.
4.   Adopt selection criteria designed i) to improve the intensity and effectiveness of competition in the tender process, and ii) to ensure that there is always a sufficient number of potential credible bidders with a continuing interest in bidding on future projects. Qualitative selection and award criteria should be chosen in such a way that credible bidders, including small and medium-sized enterprises, are not deterred unnecessarily from participating in public tenders.
5.   Strengthen efforts to fight collusion and enhance competition in public tenders by encouraging procurement agencies to use electronic bidding systems, which may be accessible to a broader group of bidders and less expensive, and to store information about public procurement opportunities in order to allow appropriate analysis of bidding behaviour and of bid data.
6.   Require all bidders to sign a Certificate of Independent Bid Determination or equivalent attestation that the bid submitted is genuine, non-collusive, and made with the intention to accept the contract if awarded.
7.   Include in the invitation to tender a warning regarding the sanctions for bid rigging that exist in the particular jurisdiction, for example fines, prison terms and other penalties under the competition law, suspension from participating in public tenders for a certain period of time, sanctions for signing an untruthful Certificate of Independent Bid Determination, and liability for damages to the procuring agency. Sanctions should ensure sufficient deterrence, taking into account the country’s leniency policy, if applicable.
All these recommendations, which are further developed in the OECD 2009 Guidelines for fighting bid rigging in public procurement are well-designed and their proper implementation may indeed contribute to strengthen competition for public contracts and to prevent and effectively identify and sanction instances of bid rigging. 

For more detailed proposals, the reader may want to consult my normative recommendations, based on the current EU public procurement rules [Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011)].