Calling for more experimental research in public procurement

Abby Semple calls on her blog for more evidence-based research in public procurement, particularly regarding SME access to public contracts. I agree with her view in general and have made similar calls about social policies in public procurement. Having said that, there is some good research being done by legal scholars (not talking about purely doctrinal work) and especially by economists.

I used qualitative research methods for my Ph.D and so did Richard Craven on his. And boy, did I toil to make sure the research was valid and reliable and can only thank my supervisors and in particular David Fraser for keeping me on the straight and narrow path. And, franly, research does not get a lot more practical than what I did in Bangor during the Winning in Tendering project with the simplified open procedure. Answering Abby's question: making the procedure easier to use, did entice the participation of SMEs.

On the economics side of the divide, there is plenty of excellent research in public procurement. Many of Jean Tirole's works are actually directly connected with public contracts. In Italy, Gustavo Piga and Gianluigi Albano have been doing excellent work in our field for ages now. In the Netherlands Jan Telgen is doing incredible stuff as well.

But the point is well taken: we need more experimental research in public procurement, as in going to the field change a few parameters or variables and measuring the results.

So, how could we make research in public procurement more experimental or evidence-based?

The problem I see is that we keep doing legal and economics public procurement research separately and without enough cross-pollination. There are good reasons why it is hard: it is difficult to master both sciences if you do not have the requisite background for example. Most multidisciplinary journals are perceived negatively by legal and economics scholars alike (with exceptions) and we all have academic targets to hit (REF, REF, REF, REF, REF). Then, there is the presumption by experts on each field to simply talk to their own constituencies and in their own lingo. Lawyers talk about public procurement, economists about auctions. For a legal hammer, all problems look like legal nails. Ditto for economics.

I see huge potential on cross-disciplinary research blending law and economics in public procurement, but that can only be achieved with:

  • Good researchers on each side of the divide;
  • Researchers willing to work outside their comfort zone;
  • Researchers with a working understanding of the other side of the fence.

Furthermore, moving from just cross-disciplinary research to actual experimental research is very difficult by default. You need access to data (past, present and future) as well as contracting authorities willing to be guinea pigs. Even when I ran the simplified open procedure pilots, my best laid out plans went out the window for a myriad reasons once I started to implement them. And that we support coming from the very top of the organisations...

I have been toying around with a multi-disciplinary research project in public procurement for years now. I am still convinced it is important and relevant for the next decade and may be in the position of actually undertaking some preliminary work in the very near future.

I am aware of my (maths...) limitations, so to pull the actual main research off I need the following:

  • Upskill myself in quantitative research methods (particularly statistics);
  • Find researchers in economics interested in the same problem AND willing to work across the divide;
  • Finding contracting authorities willing to experiment with their procurement.

Not easy.