Reimagining Procurement and “Rewriting the Public Procurement Playbook”

It is really exciting that Procurement Week 2017 will have “Rewriting the Public Procurement Playbook” as one of its three main themes and I look forward to the discussions around this major issue. Achieving a better procurement system that is able to catalyse public sector reform and boost its ability to exploit technological developments to the benefit of citizens would be a transformative contribution towards social improvement. It would also serve to raise the profile of procurement as one of the fundamental instruments of public governance and, consequently, increase the ability of the public sector to harness its ready available talent and further attract motivated professionals to a field that desperately needs to get rid of its very bad reputation for being complex, self-defeating and restrictive of innovative practice. Thus, “Rewriting the Public Procurement Playbook” is a very worthwhile endeavour.

It is also nothing new. The claim that procurement requires significant rethinking has been floating around for a very long time. In the EU, claims for meaningful, commercially-oriented reform aimed at real simplification and support of best practice seemed to have largely failed to materialise these changes in the recent review of the relevant rules [as discussed in detail in the contributions to GS Ølykke & A Sanchez-Graells, Reformation or Deformation of the EU Public Procurement Rules (Edward Elgar, 2016)]. This could be seen as a practical defeat for those of us interested in promoting meaningful legal reform in this area. However, it can also be interpreted as a sign of the need for a new strategy. Rather than relying on incremental change or system reform, it could well be that “Rewriting the Public Procurement Playbook” is only possible if a more ambitious strategy of system substitution is adopted. That is why I have been thinking for a while in a project aimed at reimagining public procurement. I will be presenting my preliminary results at Procurement Week 2017. For now, I thought it could be of interest to share with you the basic elements or aspirations of my project.

The broad idea would be to structure the project along three phases or layers of interconnected issues. First, to identify the main reasons why public procurement rules are criticised and possibly fail to create a practical and administrable system that ensures that the public sector can acquire the goods, services and works it needs in order to carry out its public interest missions in the best possible conditions, while ensuring the probity and efficiency of the expenditure of public funds. Second, to identify the main constraints that regulatory reform and policy implementation face in this area, and which imply that, despite significant efforts to enhance public procurement regulation and practice, the resulting improvements are at best marginally incremental and the underlying problems remain fundamentally unaddressed. Third, to formulate an alternative view for public procurement regulation and practice that has a good chance of overcoming the defects of current rules and avoiding the constraints of past reform processes, so as to achieve a superior system. Needless to say, this alternative view will have to integrate its technological dimension to a much more essential level than previous efforts.

Of the three layers of issues (and while acknowledging that all of them are deeply intertwined), I have been concentrating mostly on the second, and giving some thought to what constraints have affected the reform of public procurement rules in recent years. On the basis of these constraints (on which you can read more HERE), I have been starting to put together my “wish list” of the fundamental characteristics that should be at the core of a new “Public Procurement Playbook”.

Briefly, the main characteristics of a reimagined formulation of public procurement regulation and practice would include for it to be:

1. Focused on outcomes and their facilitation rather than on procedures.

2. Built upon functions rather than abstract concepts.

3. Aimed at ensuring substantial substantive compliance with incomplete rules (or principles) rather than strict and formal adherence to overly prescriptive requirements.

4. Adapted to existing technologies and adaptive to further technological change.

5. Simplified and with the objective of minimising professionalisation and training costs.

6. Overseen and enforced by the public sector itself, while including dispute resolution mechanisms of a technical nature that reduce the pressure on judicial bodies.

I really look forward to discuss these ideas with you at Procurement Week 2017 in London.

Author: Albert Sanchez-Graells

Date: December 2016

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