We mentioned here that the European Commission is looking to make improvements to the efficiency of public procurement. The initiative has four main strands:
- Definition of priority areas for improvement
- Voluntary ex-ante assessment of large infrastructure projects
- Recommendation on professionalisation of public buyers
- Consultation on stimulating innovation through public procurement.
It is however not clear in all those cases exactly what the Commission proposes to do in order to drive this initiative. In terms of the second and fourth, there ae some clearly defined actions, while the other two are less clear.
The second initiative, “voluntary ex-ante assessment” suffers from a terrible name, as Dr Pedro Telles points out in his article here, “latin, really? – and overcooks what is a very simple idea behind it. Effectively, the Commission is offering a free consultancy service for projects meeting specific criteria,” as he says. We will come back and look at this in more detail shortly; we can see merit in the concept, but the details of how it might work throw up some potential problems, we suspect.
The fourth initiative returns to what has been a major topic of interest for the Commission for some time – stimulating innovation through public procurement. Again, we will return to this topic, but it is interesting that the Commission seems to be including both definitions of procurement innovation.
“Procurement of innovation may concern the outcomes of innovation as well as innovative ways of purchasing”, they say. We would argue that these two topics (buying innovative things as against buying using innovative processes) are in reality unrelated, with only the word “innovation” itself in common! So lumping them together in this initiative is only likely to lead to confusion. The Commission is launching a targeted consultation anyway, and we will look at that in more detail soon as well.
In terms of the first initiative, “Definition of priority areas for improvement”, we can only repeat what is in the Commission’s press release:
“Member States are encouraged to develop a strategic approach to procurement policies, focusing on six priorities: greater uptake of innovative, green and social criteria in awarding public contracts; professionalisation of public buyers; improving access by SMEs to procurement markets in the EU and by EU companies in third countries; increasing transparency, integrity and quality of procurement data; digitisation of procurement processes; and more cooperation among public buyers across the EU”.
There is more on these topics in this 14-page document from the Commission, which is an interesting read. It does provide more detail on how the Commission will support improvement in these areas, but much of that is somewhat generic “raising awareness”. The problem is that this shopping list includes pretty much every aspect of what we might consider best practice public procurement – tools, technology, data, skills and so on. It is all fine, and of course member states should be looking to improve public procurement constantly. But this is a huge task (or should we say a set of several huge tasks), and there is only a certain amount the Commission can do.
The third element of the announcement – the professionalisation of public buyers – is also one of the “priority areas” of the first initiative, which is a little confusing. The Commission “recommends steps to be taken by Member States to ensure that public buyers have the business skills, technical knowledge and procedural understanding needed to comply with the rules and make sure that taxpayers get the best goods and services for their money”. But again, it is not clear what the Commission can helpfully do. The aim stated here is to “facilitate the exchange of good practices and innovative approaches”. We will see how tangible that really is.
The other uncertainty for us in the UK is whether any of this applies to our nation. With the UK exiting from the European Union in 2019, are our public procurement regulators already losing interest in what the Commission has to say about public procurement? We would hope that the UK will at least continue to take note of good ideas coming from the Commission. But, for instance, the chances of the UK taking advantage of the new referral scheme for large infrastructure projects are low.