First best practices are the worst practices

I do not remember well when I first came across with the 'best practices' concept. Maybe during my Ph.D or soon after starting working at Bangor. But back then I was already puzzled by it. What are 'best practices'? How and why are they considered to be 'best practices'? What are the the 'bad practices'?

Time went on but the fuzzyness remained: best practices this, best practices that, until I started to ignore the 'best' and simply reading them as 'practices'. The 'best' bit simply becoming another oddity of the English language. A non-threatening euphemism if you may.

I can no longer maintain such a relaxed view about the 'best practices' concept though. The reason for that being that it tends to ingrain early 'practices' as being the best way to get something done, as it happened in the UK with the cack handed approach to finish the dialogue stage on the competitive dialogue as quickly as possible and have in depth negotiations with the preferred bidder. Madness.

The issue of 'best practices' is particularly acute in public procurement. First, they're everywhere and any organisation loves to beat the drum that whatever it does is 'best practices', especially if no one else has claimed 'best practices' on that area before. It is like the wild west where you have to be the first to stake your claim which then stays unchallenged, leading to paralysis in the evolution of practices in a given area. Madness, once again.

Second, we do not really have appropriate measurement mechanisms in place. How do we now if a 'best practice' is a good practice at all? Empirical research in procurement remains limited and experimentalist research a pipe dream. Can we imagine if medical research (itself fraught with problems) simply adopted a 'best practices' claims approach instead of the scientific method? We are in the medieval bloodletting stage of applied/practical procurement research.

By definition decisions that may constitute 'best practices' involve choices and hierarchies of value. For something to be done in a way, other options have been discarded, leading to trade offs. However, when we read about 'best practices' we don't get to see or know what was not done and what trade offs the decisions entail. If you are not willing to talk about the downsides or trade offs you are not providing all the information necessary. In a field like public procurement which moves significant amounts of money this can be sub-optimal to say the least. First best practices are the worst practices.

How do we go about and change the state of affairs? I'm an experimentalist at heart and although I have resisted being drawn into it, the vortex pull is becoming ever stronger. As such, I'm *finally* starting to work in this area and putting some plans in place to work on this in the near future.

Some thoughts on academic air travel and (a) future for conferences

Last week, Albert fired the starting gun on the discussion regarding the climate change impact of academic air travel and put a marker on the sand regarding his participation on any future conferences. Long story short, he is putting himself out of contention for conference engagements that imply flying.

I spent a few years thinking about this and going backwards and forwards with my feelings. On my end, I’m not ready to simply pull the plug completely on academic air travel because I still see them as a valuable part of my work. They are overrated as a content delivery mechanism (it is not efficient or cheap to put so many people in the same room at the same type) but they are invaluable on the social aspect. That has always been the bit I like about conferences the most.

Having said that, I cut significantly cut back my involvement on conferences (in general) for purely selfish motives. I have long stopped doing “pay to speak” kind of conferences which are the conference equivalent of predatory publishing. I also restricted my participation in conferences to 2 per year as each conference carries opportunity costs around the time they take to prepare and the clash with ever increasing work commitments at my university. I have also done so for more prosaic reasons as any conference abroad implies leaving my wife alone with parenting duties and we all know what that tends to do to women’s careers. Plus, after my health problems from 2017 I can no longer work at the same rate as before so I need to be even more ruthless with how I spend my time.

Albert’s plea is genuine and shows a deep level of care about the impact of his decision, not only for his career but also how it would be perceived in the wider academic community. I genuinely do not think his career has anything to suffer from the lack of participation in conferences requiring air travel but it is true that he (and to an extent myself) have reached a level in our careers where we can afford to take measures like this. His based on environmental concerns, mine on family, health and work/life balance. For us, good conferences are cherries on a cake and something we enjoy doing.

Paradoxically, taking this decision now is a easy option (the wide communication of it is not, as he put himself out to dry and inviting criticism) and frankly an option junior researchers might not have, especially due to the social element of the conferences. You show your wares and meet up the important people in your field - those that may be in hiring committees in the future. And my take about social relationships is that everything else being equal, the one with a wider network wins. That, I think, will be the crux of the matter for early career researchers on top of their difficulties on getting funding to go to those conferences too.

But there are things we can do to help out those further down the ladder. The first is when invited offer our place to a junior colleague. I benefited hugely from refusals by more senior people earlier in the career and I have long started to pay it back to the more junior ones.

Then there’s other stuff we can do. Maybe I should restart the Public Procurement Podcast and see who is out there early in their careers and in need of a boost of their profile. Or, as I suggested Albert earlier today on twitter, perhaps design an online only conference. These days I’m watching more and more videos on Youtube (aham gaming videos in case you’re interested) and their quality is excellent. Livestreaming with tools like Twitch is very convenient and way more accessible than in the past. Technology has evolved significantly from the days of the dreaded ‘webinars’ of 10 years ago. Communication with the audience is possible in real time and that can help create the effect of a community.

All this has made me think on how I would do my BARSEA project today in comparison with 2015? The podcast would stay as it is way more mainstream today than then, but instead of doing an ECR day in person I would do it online and keep the videos on Youtube/Vimeo or any other provider of the like.

So, let’s keep the conversation going.

Launch of Buying Into the Future report

I’m delighted to be speaking on Friday at the launch of the Buying into the Future report by PUBLIC. I will be part of a panel on ‘How can Government do more to buy from startups and innovators?’ with Tanya Filer, Digital State Lead - Bennet Institute for Public Policy and Robyn Scott CEO of Apolitical.

The event will be held on Bird & Bird London Office from 09:00 to 12:30 and registration is free.

Spain publishes guidance for low value contracts

Spain’s current public procurement law imposes strong transparency requirements for most contracts below the financial thresholds, restricting the use of non-transparent procedures to contracts value at below €15,000 (services) or €40,000 (works) only. My take is that overall this is a positive step and one that I regret Portugal not following.

That does not mean the move is painless or without difficulties. To clarify the requirements and operational implications of the move, Spain’s Procurement Regulator Body (something Portugal should have copied too…) published its first ever binding guidance specifically on Art 118 of the Spanish Public Contracts Law.

The guidance makes a very restrictive interpretation of the grounds enabling the use of the non-transparent procedure, from the requirements (deemed as cumulative) to the potential loopholes of contract splitting or recurrent yearly contracts with the exact same object. Julio Gonzales has a few extra comments (in Spanish) on the Global Politics and Law blog.

UK (re)joins the GPA

The GPA members and the UK have reached an agreement allowing for the country to acceed to the Agreement if and when it leaves the European Union. This agreement ensures a continuity of the international procurement legal regime for UK-based undertakings and those based on the GPA members.

Back in 2017 myself and Albert Sanchez-Graells concluded that the UK was not a party to the current GPA in its own right and would have instead to apply for accession. Our colleague Ping Wang from Nottingham reached a similar conclusion.

In the paper we posited that the accession could follow a streamlined process but we assumed that even then it would take a significant amount of time. In this instance we were proved wrong, with the accession ocurring quicker than we anticipated.

Regarding possible change to the UK's legal regime(s) post-Brexit, we remain convinced that the accession to the GPA limits the scope of the changes that can be introduced.

Department For Transport sued for *that* ferry contract

Eurotunnel is suing the Department for Transport due to the ferry contract(s) awarded back in December without proper tendering procedures. This turn of affairs is not really surprising and a logical consequence of the poor handling of those contracts.

The merits of the actual complaint, they appear obvious. In my opinion, the use of the negotiated procedure without prior publication based on the grounds for extreme urgency was not legal since said urgency arose from a lack of timely action by the Government. In other words, incompetence by the contracting authority is never a ground to use a non-transparent procedure. It has been public since March 2017 that the departure date from the Union is scheduled for 29 March 2019, therefore the lack of preparation for the consequences of the default scenario for such departure (no-deal Brexit) runs from that moment as well and is not unforeseen (or unforeseeable). This is pretty much well established at EU level and probably one of the reasons why the rules about contract notice transparency are as draconian as they are.

As Albert and myself said back in 2016 about Regulation 32(2), the negotiated procedure without prior notice is exceptional in nature and as such its grounds need to be interpreted strictly as not to create competitive distortions. And the latter seems to be exactly what happened in this instance.

PS: As for piling on Chris Grayling for spending £800k on consultants to prepare the contracts that is probably uncalled for based on the total amount being procured and that time was of the essence (which is different than saying the grounds for the negotiated procedure were met). And let’s not forget one of them actually flagged up Seaborne Freight lack of trading history as a risk factor. That no one heeded such advice, on the other hand, is more than fair game.

UK Competition and Markets Authority finds cartel in construction

This may not come as a surprise to anyone working in this area of practice, but the CMA has provisionally found guilty two companies operating in the construction sector, specifically in the pre-cast concrete drainage sector. These two companies have admitted being part of a cartel whereas a third one is also under investigation but has not admitted any wrongdoing.

Stanton Bonna and CPM together had 90% plus of the market from 2010 and have agreed to pay fines as part of their settlement for their price coordination practice.

It remains to be seen if the companies will be debarred from future public contracts based on Reg. 59 PCR 2015/Art. 59(4) of Directive 2014/24/EU but I suspect the grounds are too narrow to allow for such interpretation.

UK publishes anti-corruption strategy update

The UK adopted in late 2017 a anti-corruption strategy for the 2017-2022 period. One year on from the publication of the original strategy, an update has just been released.

Reducing corruption in public procurement and grants was and remains a key objective of the strategy, but whereas the original strategy included some loftier ambitions, the update provides some information on how the strategy is being pursued.

Some of the information is interesting to say the least, such as attributing an increase in 31% of the number of notices being published on ContractsFinder to a specific single Procurement Policy Note and that the open contracting standard work appears to be ongoing but without any firm commitments on the deployment of the open contracting data standard for example.

The CMA cartel screening tool also gets mentioned (and I think correctly - brownie points for it to be available on GitHub) as does the National Fraud Initiative and its work with local authorities to identify risk factors.

Going forward, the bit I am personally more interested in is buried under goal 3 - greater confidence in efficient and legitimate contract management an area that is sorely lacking attention. Not necessarily only regulatory attention, but also that of the practical type. The update mentions a Contract Debarment trial that was successfully completed in June 2018 and that a preferred approach will be forthcoming in 2019. Contract debarment is an area fraught with practical difficulties and one I think needs to be tackled centrally and not at authority level.

Finally, the update also promises specific guidance on how to apply exclusions in public procurement in December 2018, so that means within the next couple of weeks. This is once more welcomed but in all honestly should have been produced in 2015 or 2016 soon after the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 came into force

Today is 'electronic procurement day' in the EU

Although the general deadline for transposition of the 2014 public procurement Directives was April 2016, Article 90 of Directive 2014/24/EU provided the Member States more time to get their act together in what concerns electronic procurement.

Well, the deadline for transposition of the remaining electronic procurement obligations contained in the Directive is today.

Now the million dollar question in the Member States that are yet to transpose (or implement) such provisions is: which have direct effect?

Asymmetric retaliation in the UK GPA accession

Last week, Bloomberg ran an article claiming the USA and two other countries were blocking the UKs accession to the GPA agreement. Yesterday, it doubled down on the story stating New Zealand and Moldova as the two other members blocking the UK. and provided more information about why Moldova is making life difficult for the UK. The Moldovan reasons are simply delicious and a prime example of asymmetric retaliation. In hindsight, they capture beautifully the zeitgeist of Brexit. All in all, what myself and Albert predicted about a year ago in our paper is panning out: UK going for a straightforward accession as possible but with the flank exposed to demands from current members.

So far it seems that the current members are willing to run down the clock to November 27th when the WTO government procurement meeting occurs. To be fair, there is no reason or incentive to do otherwise for a number of reasons. First, because the UK is not leaving the European Union until March 29th, 2019, so there may be time for an agreement until then. If ratifications are required, then agreeing now or in March does not make a significant difference.

Second, the longer the uncertainty lasts the weaker the UK bargaining position and the more willing it will be to make concessions. And herein lies the rub: those demands for concessions can come from anywhere in the spectrum of interests of the other members, effectively meaning they may be completely unconnected with procurement. Procurement is simply being used as leverage to obtain concessions elsewhere (again, read between the lines of the Moldovan reasons…).

Finally, contrary to popular perception, the UK procurement market is not that open to foreign bidders. Only large contracts are subject to the GPA rules and those tend to be of interest to large companies. And which countries have large companies operating in foreign public procurement markets? Above all, two: USA and the UK. So, the USA is effectively reducing competition for procurement contracts inside its market and also - probably more crucially - taking key players out of competition abroad. So for the USA it makes sense to make life as difficult as possible to the UK unless really good sweeteners are thrown in (NHS privatisation anyone?). So for the price of losing access to the UK market the USA is blocking competition in all other markets (exception may be EU of course) as the UK also has no Free Trade Agreements in place. As for Moldova, it sits on the other side of the spectrum. It knows its companies stand no chance in hell of winning contracts in the UK so why open its home procurement market for free? Better to try and win a concession elsewhere like, say, visas.

Overall, I suspect the overarching interest of all parties will lead to a deal sooner or later, but so far we’re still in the multidimensional chess part of the game.


PS: The irony of New Zealand being the third blocker is not lost on me. Eat your hat, brexiteers.

New project on Curbing Corruption in Government Contracting

Liz David-Barret and Mihaly Fazekas have a new research project called Curbing Corruption in Government Contracting, funded by the Department for International Development Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme. The project aims to look at how corruption can manipulate procurement and strategies to identify variables, patterns and trends that may indicate a corruption risk.

As the project evolves, it will be possible to find on the website working papers, policy briefs, datasets and a stream of blog posts on their work. You can find them as well on Twitter.

Public procurement and contracts: new briefing paper by the House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library has just published an interesting new briefing paper on public procurement and contracts. It is an introductory text, but one that sets up the scene well to explain how public procurement works in the UK.

The briefing paper can be found here.

It's 2018 and contracting authorities are still struggling with justifying their decisions

Arecent decision by the Technology and Construction Court (Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust v Lancashire County Council [2018] EWHC 1589) is a tour de force on how contracting authorities are often still unable to deal properly with the need to have good decision making models *and* keeping track of their decision making processes. Discretion does not mean arbitrariness...

Even bearing in mind that the contract at hand was for care services and as such subject to the "light touch" regime of Articles 74-76 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, that does not mean contracting authorities can simply run the procedure as they see fit. The award decision must follow the award criteria disclosed (it did in this case) and any element of the decision that is material needs to be logged and justified.

It is also worth noting the importance that should be given to moderation when multiple individuals are involved in the assessment process and on this point paras 30-40 of the judgment. are scathing "[a]s this summary shows, there was no consistency either in identifying what were said to be key points or in highlighting points to show that they had been influential.  The approach differed even within the record of the same question(...)."

Well.

Free lunches and public procurement

Here's an article (in Spanish) that caught my eye this morning. A couple of interesting tidbits:

"The Spanish cleaning companies Association and the Unions trust that the new Public Contracts Law covers labour costs and to guarantee the social rights of workers in all tenders from the various contracting authorities."

 Here's what is meant by it, in the words of the Association president:

"...to include in the award criteria various elements related to the service quality, such as the working conditions offered by the companies..."

I find this article interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is very uncommon to see both business and unions agreeing on labour costs. Second, it is possible to explain it by looking at the incentives and how they are both aligned in this instance. Let's start with the companies.

Cleaning services are incredible price sensitive and (as it is claimed) 90% of the cost incurred with each contract is simply labour costs. Companies hate competition and honestly price is the most liquid of comparators wether we like it or not. Since those contracts tend to be awarded based on price, if the costs is essentially fixed (the minimum wage) then they are effectively competing in the narrow sliver of their margin (those 10%) and that is where it  hurts. No wonder they want to either take price out of the equation or dilute with "service quality" criteria. More about this in a second.

As for the unions, they simply want a better deal for their members and there is nothing wrong with that, so they also want prices to rise assuming they translate into higher wages (they won't) or at least better working conditions for cleaning staff.

So, both parties interests are aligned in reducing price importance in the equation. In other words, both want the contracts to get more expensive. One side wants better margins, the other either more pay or better working conditions.

About the "service quality" then. The second citation above is a direct citation. The example of service quality provided by the President of the cleaning companies association has nothing to do with service quality (well, at least not directly) but with working conditions instead. To conflate the two is disingenuous to say the least. Working conditions are a problem for companies like cleaning services companies due to attrition and costs of training/recruiting new staff.

It is not surprising for me that he did not pick up other award criteria for quality. No mention of efficiency (although price is a proxy for it), availability/turn around of staff in case of spike in cleaning needs, technology to manage the contract/communications, etc. It may well be, however, that he did mention them but the reporter chose that tidbit instead.

In any case this is a roundabout way of solving the fundamental problem: wages are probably too low. It will lead to worse outcomes than solving the fundamental problem. And even then, let's be honest and assume that solving that problem implies higher taxes. There are no free lunches in public procurement.

Government risk assessment of Carillion published

The Public Accounts Select Committee has published a report into the risk assessments of Carillion in the run up to its failure. Here's a snippet:

"The Carillion assessments show that:

  • Although Carillion had been rated Amber owing to performance against contracts with the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice, it was not until after Carillion issued a profit warning in July 2017 that Government downgraded Carillion to Red. It appears the Government was not aware of Carillion’s financial distress until this point.
  • In November 2017, officials recommended a provisional Black rating for Carillion. However, following representations from the company, the Cabinet Office did not confirm the designation. Carillion collapsed less than two months later."

On a very strange (but welcome) transparency note, even the assessments themselves were made public.

What it appears to me is that by November 2017, plans should have been privately put in motion to forestall a potential (though not certain yet) entrance into administration, ie how to handle ongoing contracts, securing access to sites, etc. That for me is much more important than knowing exactly when the rating moved from amber to red and then finally to black.

On a final note: who and when had access to these risk assessment reports, ie only the Cabinet Office or the wider public sector which could have been tendering contracts with Carillion as a bidder.

Carillion and the policy of re-pricing contracts

Somehow I missed this excellent blogpost by Peter Smith last week about the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee hearing on public sector outsourcing. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's an interesting bit:

"Asked about contracts that are in difficulties, “we have re-priced in some case” says Manzoni. He then backs off somewhat and says “we have to be careful with regulations”. Really? Tell us more, do explain where you have broken the law!  “Several I can think of where a re-pricing has taken place, where we have got it wrong”."

I do not fully agree with Peter's immediate conclusion of illegality. It may be that what is meant in this context is that the service delivery changed and as such the prices changed as well. This would be legal (within the limits provided for in the Regulations). Even a pure price change might be legal if it met the three criteria mentioned by Peter in his post and present in Article 72 of Directive 2014/24/EU:

(i) the need for modification has been brought about by circumstances which a diligent contracting authority could not foresee;
(ii) the modification does not alter the overall nature of the contract;
(iii) any increase in price is not higher than 50 % of the value of the original contract or framework agreement. Where several successive modifications are made, that limitation shall apply to the value of each modification. Such consecutive modifications shall not be aimed at circumventing this Directive;
 

The burden of proof for the conditions to be met remains with the contracting authority, so in this case evidence would have to be provided that a diligent contracting authority could not foresee the need to increase the price. An of course, the more times the repricing happens to any given contracting authority the less likely it is the test will be met. But who would put forward a complaint even it that was the case? 

In the bigger picture, this is yet another example of what I have been harping for years: the price of regulatory focus in the procedure has moved the pressure points (corruption/illegalities/violation of competition etc) to other areas of the system, namely contract performance and pre-tender launch. 

It is also evidence of the winner's curse at play, but we have known that for ages.

On the importance of designing public contracts well

Very interesting piece on Wired about how Barcelona is dealing with smart city surveillance, even if I do not buy the whole political worldview.* On the procurement side, this bit at the start caught my eye:

“Now we have a big contract with Vodafone, and every month Vodafone has to give machine readable data to city hall. Before, that didn’t happen. They just took all the data and used it for their own benefit”

I will take this at face value, but even so it shows the importance of understanding where value (and risk) lies. By giving Vodafone free reign on using the data generated in that contract the City Council was effectively paying them twice for the same service: first, in cash. Then, in data Vodafone could use as well for its own purposes. That the current City Council understands that the value generated by its contract is valuable (and also a key reason why incumbents usually have a built in advantage IMHO) is a welcome development.

In general I am in favour of more, not less transparency even though it is not exactly risk free in some markets due to the collusion opportunity it offers. But my experience in public procurement tells me that more detailed data provided to tenderers helps them reduce uncertainty and provide more detailed bids based on that data (it just so happens it might as well help collusion).

There is another important point to think about here as well and that is the potential State aid implications. If usage data has value for the incumbent and it is already being paid to deliver the contract then it is arguable the intrinsic data value goes beyond the market rate and that might constitute a case of implicit (?) State Aid. 

The fact the data is controlled by the City Council and (hopefully) made available to tenderers in the following tender allows to level the ground between the incumbents and challengers, negates part of their inbuilt advantage and the value the data has for the first.

*The idea behind Barcelona as a smart city predates 2015 and the current preoccupation with data ownership as well.