Public procurement in the CJEU's 2016 Annual Report - What a Busy Year and How Much New Case Law To Keep Up With

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has published its 2016 Annual Report, including a detailed assessment of its judicial activity. Even at first read, it is clear that public procurement features more prominently in this year's edition, where the CJEU offers some comments on key ECJ cases, such as Falk PharmaPartner Apelski Dariusz and Wrocław — Miasto na prawach powiatu, and PFE (see Judicial Activity Report, pp 64-65); as well as some comments on key GC cases on public procurement by the EU Institutions and on Commission's Decisions on Utilities Procurement, such as Österreichische Post v Commission, or European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EUIPO on the concept of conflict of interest (currently under appeal) (pp. 182-183).

The 2016 Annual Report also allows for an expansion of previous statistical analysis of the ECJ's and GC's case load in the area of public procurement (see also analyses for 2015, 2014 and 2012).

Interestingly, 2016 data shows a reduction in the accumulation of procurement-related backlog, which is now reduced to its 2010 level if the institution is taken as a whole. As the graphs below show, this reduction in backlog is mainly due to increased decision-making at ECJ level and to a significant reduction of new cases at GC level. It is worth taking a closer look at both issues.

Sharp reduction in number of new cases before the GC

The number of new procurement cases before the GC dropped from 23 in 2015 to only 9 in 2016, which marks the all time lowest level since 2006, when the statistical series started. This sharp reduction in new cases allowed the GC to catch up with some of its backlog from previous periods and to reduce it by one third (from 35 to 24 pending cases in the 2015-2016 comparison). However, the low number of cases at GC level, which mostly concerns challenges to procurement decisions by the EU Institutions, continues to indicate that the creation of more effective remedies mechanisms applicable to EU institutional procurement remains a priority for regulatory reform (as stressed by the Court of Auditors). 

Increased Decision-Making at ECJ Level

It is particularly remarkable that the ECJ managed to significantly increase its decision-making in the area of public procurement, moving from an average of 10 decided cases in the 2010-2015 period (with a highest output of 14 decisions in 2015) to 31 decisions in 2016. Coupled with a reduction in the number of new cases from 26 to 19 in the 2015-2016 comparison, this increased level of decision-making activity has cut the backlog of pending cases by one third, thus bringing it back to its 2014 level and stopping (at least for now) the worrying trend observed throughout this decade.

It is interesting to dig a bit deeper in the analysis of this remarkable surge in decision-making activity by the ECJ. The graph below shows the evolution of the public procurement decisions adopted by the ECJ, breaking down annual totals between those closed by Judgment or Opinion (ie substantive decision-making) and those closed by Order (ie procedural decision-making).

As the graph shows, the increased volume of decision-making has resulted in an increased total volume of both substantive and procedural decisions. The impact of this evolution on the different type of decisions may be easier to grasp through a simple ratio. As the table below shows, the increase in decision-making has in part been the result of the adoption of a larger proportion of procedure-based decisions. This may point towards the need for further case-by-case analysis in order to understand if this reflects any new trends concerning the ECJ's management of procurement cases, or if it is simply the result of the larger overall case load in this area. In any case, what is clear is that 2016 was a year of unprecedented substantive decision-making by the ECJ in the area of public procurement. No wonder it felt like such a busy year and that it was hard to keep up with all developments!

New edition of Public Procurement Indicators published by the European Commission -- some odd uk numbers

In late December 2016, the European Commission published its Public Procurement Indicators 2015. The statistical information included in this report shows some interesting trends, such as the general increase of procurement expenditure in the EU in 2015 -- which was up by almost 7% from 2014, to reach a total of €450.21 billion -- as well as the continued trend of concentration of procurement expenditure that results from aggregation and/or centralisation of procurement at Member State level.

Regarding the trend towards greater concentration of procurement expenditure in large awards, it is interesting to note that 'at EU level more than one third of the value ... is awarded through contract award notices of 100 million euros or more. This relative concentration of procurement, in large awards, is extremely remarkable in the UK and to a lesser extent in Poland and France. On the opposite side Germany and France concentrate a large fraction of the value procured in the works sector in the smaller size awards'.

This seems surprising because projects of more than €100 million may be relatively common in works (ie infrastructure), as well as large framework agreements for common use equipment (notably, IT hardware), but services contracts of that size would have seemed much less common at first thought (although it is possible that IT expenditure is moving from goods to services as cloud computing and other services are 'virtualised'). In any case, the the fact that the trend is much stronger in the UK than in the rest of the EU (combined) strikes as odd.

Indeed, as the Commission's report stresses, the UK leads the statistics for the award of very large contracts (ie those of a value over €100 million), both for works (66%) and, possibly more remarkable, for services (70%) -- with a smaller but still very significant lead on goods (52%). What is worth emphasising is that the UK's figures are 10 times the magnitude of those for any other Member State (and around 50 to 100 times those of most Member States) both for works and services, and that they double the figures for any other Member State in goods (while still being around 50 to 100 times those of most Member States).

A recalculation of the figures concerning very large contracts excluding data for the UK shows that 22% of procurement expenditure at EU27 level is awarded through contracts of €100 million or more for works and services, and 25% for goods (and, anecdotally, it should be taken into account that a  significant part of the latter is attributable to Italy's Consip centralised procurement activities). Thus, the fact that UK alone can move total figures up by 11% (ie a deviation of 50% of the EU27 statistics) seems quite striking.

Moreover, in general, the UK shows a disproportionately high share of contracts advertised in TED (and the estimated value of its contracts is larger throughout the value scale, with many less small contracts and many more large contracts than the EU average, which has an effect on the obligation to publish notices). This is particularly noticeable when compared to other EU countries with large procurement expenditure -- eg in 2015 the UK advertised an estimated 37% of its public expenditure, whereas Germany advertised less than 10% (see graphs below).

In view of these statistical divergences, a closer look at the UK numbers seems necessary in order to try to understand this trend towards concentrated expenditure through very large contracts. However, there is no detailed information in the report on the basis of which to carry out a qualitative analysis.

Many hypotheses are imaginable, such as the possibility that very large centralised contracts are tendered (for example, by the Crown Commercial Service) but they are not necessarily executed to a large percentage of their estimated value, or that the UK is actually significantly more centralised in terms of procurement than other Member States, particularly in services. Each of these possibilities opens itself up for speculation--for instance, about the reliability of statistical information that could include awarded but unexecuted procurement value (which may be very, extremely relevant in the inminent Brexit-related negotiations, as well as for any reevaluation of GPA coverage both for the EU and the UK) or, on the second scenario, about the drivers for such significant differences in centralisation volumes in different Member States and about the possibility of centralised procurement of services in a way that still allows for proper provision of (public) services to end users.

Either way, I find these issues most intriguing and, in case the issue of unexecuted (contracted) expenditure is included in the statistics, I think that more work should go into the collection of actual information and the publication of raw data that allows for refined analysis--ideally, in relation to the 2016 version of the public procurement indicators.


A second look at the CJEU's public procurement activity--and a reflection on its implications in terms of remedies and the effectiveness of eu judicial activity

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has now published the final version of its Judicial Activity 2015 Annual Report. The release of these final statistics on the CJEU activity for the past year provides a chance to take a second look at the evolution of procurement cases over a long(ish) time period--statistics are now available for a full decade regarding the General Court (GC) and for the period since 2010 for the Court of Justice (ECJ). A quick look at the the statistics shows a continuation of the trend of increasing backlog in this area (see here), and a closer look reveals how the backlog at the ECJ level has been deteriorating rather quickly in recent years.

There are some limitations of the statistical information that need to be stressed from the outset. First, as with previous editions of the judicial activity report (see previous comments of the 2012 and 2014 reports), having had more information on the status of pending cases would have helped gain a better understanding of the situation, particularly at ECJ level. It is still hard to understand why the GC explicitly reports on pending cases, while the ECJ does not. Second, not all cases are exactly comparable. While the activity at GC level is limited to challenges to procurement procedures carried out by the EU Institutions, the activity of the ECJ includes a mix of preliminary references (the vast majority of new cases) and appeals against GC decisions. In 2015, of the 26 new cases before the ECJ, 22 were preliminary references and 4 were appeals. This makes the assessment of the overall evolution of public procurement activity not very meaningful. Thus, I will rather discuss the evolution at the GC and ECJ level separately.

Evolution of procurement cases at GC level--what are the implications in terms of the effectiveness of remedies for eu institutions' procurement?

The GC has been managing to slightly reduce its backlog of pending cases in the last 5 years and the trend seemed to roughly remain stationary in 2015, when it opened 23 new cases and completed another 22. Provided that no cases are "left at the bottom of the pile", it would thus seem that the GC is in a position to manage and cope with its public procurement docket.

However, this should not be too surprising, given the low pressure that being the review court for all the procurement activities developed by the EU Institutions creates. According to the recent Special Report No 17/2016 of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on EU institutional procurement (see here), the EU Institutions carried out procurement for a value of €4.2 bn in 2014. According to ECA: "In the 6‑year period from 2009 to 2014 the General Court completed 3,419 cases of which 106 dealt with public procurement by the EU institutions (3.1 %), or on average 17.6 cases per year. The 106 cases relating to public procurement gave rise to a total of 123 decisions: 66 judgments and 57 orders" (p. 44).

The Commission generally estimates that it awards more than 9,000 contracts per year. However, on average, there are less than 20 challenges of those procurement decisions per year. This would roughly indicate that less than 0.25% of procurement decisions of the EU Institutions get challenged before the GC. This is a very low caseload for a court in charge of reviewing procurement activity of a value of €4.2 bn. Searching for valid comparators is difficult because each jurisdiction organises procurement remedies in different ways and there are important cultural and practical factors that can determine very different litigation rates (going from the possible extreme of high litigation in Italy, where around 40% of the cases in the administrative courts are public procurement cases, to the UK, where there is only a handful of public procurement cases every year).

However, one gets the sense that 20 cases per year is a very low litigation rate by taking into consideration that EU Member States with similar or lower estimated procurement expenditure show more intense litigation. For example, based on the Commission's data, Bulgaria has over 1,000 cases per year (estimated procurement covered by the EU rules of €2.83 bn), Latvia has over 200 cases (€3.55 bn), Luxembourg has over 50 cases (€0.56 bn), and the Slovak Republic has over 1,000 cases (€3.98 bn). If we calculate the incidence of litigation by volume of (estimated) expenditure (covered by the EU rules), we would get the (very, very) rough measure of cases by billion Euro of expenditure. Using the information available (which is far from ideal), we can construct the table on the left-handside column.

This information should be taken with immense caution, and none of the specific figures for any of the countries of the list should be used as an indication of the actual intensity of litigation in that jurisdiction. However, I think that his serves to make the broader point that the level of litigation of procurement decisions adopted by the EU Institutions is indeed very low, at least by an order of magnitude.

The implication of this insight in terms of a potential review of the remedies mechanisms available to challenge procurement decisions by the EU Institutions--which has been advocated by ECA and should be strongly supported (see here)--is that the GC (in its current configuration and without a significant expansion of resources) is probably incapable of digesting any relevant increase of procurement litigation to a level in line with the jurisdictions of the Member States, except those with a lower intensity of procurement litigation. 

In my view, thus, it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency in charge of the oversight of the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, in case the provision of additional resources to this entity was considered preferable than a more substantial reform of the remedies system.

Evolution of procurement cases at ECJ level--will a new wave of preliminary references flood the court and dampen the papers?

The ECJ has been accumulating a significant backlog of procurement cases over the last 5 years (no earlier statistics are available). What seems worrying is that, for the last 3 years, the backlog has been increasing at a pace of approximately 10 cases per year, and the total backlog at the end of 2015 trebled the level in 2010.

In view of the expiry of deadline for the transposition of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in 2016 (and even if a significant number of Member States are delayed), it seems reasonable to expect a new wave of preliminary references for the interpretation of the ever so complex new rules and their coordination with the previous case law in this area of EU economic law. Thus, it would seem reasonable to expect the ECJ to consider strategies to cope not only with the existing backlog, but also with the likely increase in referrals in the period between now and, say, 2020.

Of course, it is difficult to develop a strategy that prioritises public procurement over other areas of judicial activity, and there may be good reasons to consider other types of cases (including within EU economic law, such as tax avoidance cases) equally or more relevant or urgent. However, the advantage of procurement is that, it being a very specialistic and relatively self-contained area, it would not be too difficult to create a task force to deal with procurement cases in a swift manner. This would require an investment in human capital for a temporary period.

The European Commission did this in the wake of the financial crisis in order to deal with the increased volume of State aid cases [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 possibility of introducing similar flexibility at ECJ level could help boost the effectiveness of EU law (and public procurement law in particular) through a swifter process for the clarification of new rules that, otherwise, may remain in legal limbo for quite some time.

In terms of looking for resource to do so, of course, the elephant in the room is the issue of the cost of language management (as in translation and interpretation) at the CJEU. This is probably heretical, but I think that a reduction of the resource dedicated to language management would be the easiest and quickest way of boosting the ability of the CJEU to deal with a larger docket of legal issues. The Management Report in the 2015 Annual Report makes this overwhelmingly clear. To my mind, the fact that 37.4% of the posts at the CJEU are judicial (including Cabinets, Registries, Research and Documentation, Library, Protocol, Communication and Publications), while 51.0% of the posts are languages positions (including Translation and Interpretation), is troubling. Basically, because this heaviness of language management has the combined effect of: a) draining resource that could be put to a different use and, b) delaying the functioning of the CJEU.

Overall conclusion

It is probably not surprising that a look at the statistical information on judicial activity shows that the CJEU is not prepared for the likely developments in litigation in the area of public procurement law. It may well be overwhelmed by developments at the EU level that triggered a higher intensity of procurement litigation--should the remedies system for EU Institutional procurement be developed along the lines proposed by the European Court of Auditors; and it is most certainly in a bad position to absorb any significant increase in the number of questions referred for a preliminary ruling that results from the Member States application of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in a systematic manner.

In my opinion, the CJEU (and the EU Institutions more generally) should look for creative ways of preparing for these changes. Otherwise, the effectiveness of the EU public procurement rules may be jeopardised and/or significantly delayed, particularly concerning the interpretation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, which is certainly not without legal controversy.

Public procurement in the CJEU's Annual Report 2014 Statistics

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has published the full version of its 2014 Annual Report, which allows for an update of the statistics available two years ago (here). The 2014 report offers interesting data about the continued relevance of public procurement in the overall activities of the Court, as well as the evolution of the backlog in the docket, which seems to be needing attention at the highest level. I provide the new data first, both for the CJEU and the GC, and then update the time series I first prepared in 2012.

CJEU 2014 data

In 2014, the CJEU opened 21 new cases on public procurement (3.42% of all new cases), of which 20 were references for a preliminary ruling and the other case was an appeal. It adopted 13 decisions in public procurement cases (11 Judgments and 2 Orders) during the same period (which represent 2.08% of all cases closed). This clearly indicates that the CJEU has accumulated a (further) backlog of around 50% of the 2014 new procurement cases.

A cursory search on CURIA's case finder shows 9 pending procurement cases (below), which would track the 2014 mismatch (although two of them are 2015 cases)--but only assuming there was no backlog of procurement cases at the beginning of that year, which I do not think is correct (see below for some conjectures). In any case, more transparency on the backlog of cases would be desirable.

GC 2014 data

In 2014, the GC opened 17 new cases on public procurement, and it issued 18 decisions (16 Judgments and 2 Orders). The GC is managing to keep the number of pending cases stable at around 35. The fact that the GC publishes explicit statistics on pending cases by subject matter makes things easier.

Time series

The following is an update of the time series I prepared in 2012. Just like then, please note that unfortunately, prior to 2010, the data for the CJEU does not include a separate category for public procurement cases (they were likely to be classified under approximation of laws, or under the relevant fundamental freedom). Therefore, the actual numbers may be higher than the available statistics show but, in my view, the general trends remain clear: backlog is increasing and now reaches about 75 cases. As I mentioned above, more transparency (or a correction of incorrect classification of cases, if there is any) would be much desirable.


A spoonful of #publicprocurement in the #CJEU's bowl

Public procurement has been gaining relevance in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (both at the General Court and Court of Justice level), both in qualitative and quantitative terms. A look at the statistics on public procurement cases clearly shows their increasing numerical importance, as well as the increasing backlog that is being accumulated in this area of EU economic law. 

(*) Note: Unfortunately, prior to 2010, the data for the Court of Justice does not include a separate category for public procurement cases (they were likely to be classified under approximation of laws, or under the relevant fundamental freedom). Therefore, the actual numbers may be higher than the available statistics show but, in my view, the general trends seem clear.

In terms of new cases, it seems clear that, despite the increasing prescriptiveness of the public procurement rules, the growing body of EU case law that interpret them, and the issuance of guidance by the European Commission--public procurement is an area of growing litigation. This is particularly clear before the General Court, which has the role of appeals tribunal for the public procurement decisions of the EU Institutions--which makes it surprising that, actually, the number of tender challenges the GC hears is relatively small if one takes into consideration the number of procurement procedures run by EU Institutions on a yearly basis (the Commission alone tenders over 9,000 contracts a year, mostly for services) [which may raise an issue of effectiveness of remedies for EU institutional procurement, but this is an issue that would deserve careful and separate consideration].

In view of this growing number of new cases, it is encouraging to see that the number of completed cases is also growing. However, this may be just a natural adjustment to the number of new cases--the more public procurement cases get on the table, the more that get completed in due time. In this regard, it would be interesting to estimate the average duration of public procurement cases to try to correlate increases in new cases (in 2008, for instance) with larger numbers of completed cases some years after (e.g. in 2011 or 2012).

On a less positive note, a comparison of new and completed cases shows that the pace of increase of completed cases is insufficient to cope with the larger workload of the Court of Justice in this area. It is clear to see that there is an increasing backlog of public procurement cases and that, in its best years, the EU Courts just manage to complete as many cases as they receive--leaving a relatively permanent backlog of some 40 cases before the GC and additional 20 cases before the CJEU.

All in all, then, it seems clear that the EU Courts have a lot of public procurement cases in their plates and that this is an area due to absorb more and more resources of this institution. In view of the larger workload of the GC in this area and the fact that it serves as the first instance for judicial review of the public procurement decisions of the EU Institutions, given the relatively minor relevance of some of these cases--as the (in)famous Evropaiki Dynamiki saga shows--and the fact that some of them are factually intensive, it may be worth reconsidering the attribution of this role to the GC and the potential creation of a specialized chamber to deal with public procurement cases (and there may be room for other specialized chambers, such as one on trademark law, but this is a matter for another day).

In any case, the development of EU public procurement law through the jurisprudence of the EU Courts seems prone to remain a constant feature of this area of EU economic law, at least for some years to come, until the existing 'stock' of pending cases is processed by the system. Something to keep an eye on.

#GAO reports that there is scope for more competition in #US Defense #procurement

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published an interesting report on Defense Contracting: Actions Needed to Increase Competition, where it finds that the proportion of defense contracts subject to competition "declined over the past five fiscal years, from 62.6 percent in fiscal year 2008 to 57.1 percent in fiscal year 2012". Moreover, GAO also found that "the competition rate in fiscal year 2012 varied by specific DOD component with the Air Force having the lowest at 37.1 percent and the Defense Logistics Agency the highest at 83.3 percent. The majority of the noncompetitive awards cited the availability of only one responsible source to meet the government’s needs as the reason for using noncompetitive procedures". 

This overall reduction of 5.5 points has been provoked by a number of factors. "For example, reliance on an original equipment manufacturer throughout the life cycle of a program has been a long-standing challenge for DOD competition, and budget uncertainty can also hinder DOD’s ability to compete. Noncompetitive purchases that DOD makes on behalf of foreign governments can also affect DOD’s competition rate".

In a deeper analysis, GAO points out that the justifications provided for noncompetitive procurement are not always sufficient, despite procurement officials ticking all the boxes and meeting the regulatory requirements to proceed with direct awards. "Many of the noncompetitive justifications GAO reviewed included the required elements as defined by the Federal Acquisition Regulation; however, the level of insight into the reasons for noncompetitive awards varied. For example, some justifications included clear descriptions of market environments where only one source was available to meet the government’s needs or described planned actions that could help improve competition in the future. However, other justifications provided limited insight into the reasons for the noncompetitive award or did not fully describe actions that the agency could take to increase future competition. Without this information, DOD may be missing opportunities to gain a fuller understanding of why past acquisitions were not competitive and may be unable to apply those lessons to effectively facilitate competition for future acquisitions".

Interestingly, GAO stresses that "these factors are not always considered when setting DOD’s annual competition goals" and recommends that "DOD identify, track, and consider the specific factors that affect competition when setting competition goals; develop guidance to apply lessons learned from past procurements to help achieve competition in the future; and collect reliable data on one-offer awards".

For European readers, the report is interesting not only because it raises issues that sound familiar (such as the 'abuse' of void justifications when resorting to negotiated procedures or direct awards of contracts), but also because it stresses the importance of developing solid tools of procurement statistics, monitoring and intelligence in order to develop a continuous appraisal of public procurement activities and foster their increasingly pro-competitive development. 

Forthcoming, revised EU rules on public procurement should indeed promote such tools, with a particular focus on data collection and analysis (which was promoted by the European Commission, but which may be significantly reduced with the proposed suppression of article 84 of the 2011 Commission's proposal by the Council and the European Parliament in the current negotiation of future revisions of EU procurement rules). 

As I already said, I think that the general transatlantic message to carry home in the current revision of the EU rules is that more planning and more oversight / analysis are required. Otherwise, EU public procurement rules will still fall short from ensuring the development of a dynamic and growingly competitive set of tools that can deliver value for money.