The procurement angle to the Portuguese government anti-corruption plan

The Portuguese government presented last week its 32 point anti-corruption plan. If you remember the coalition’s electoral manifesto, fighting corruption was one of its planks. Four of the 32 proposals are directly connected with public procurement, but the idea of hardening the rules on conflict of interest seems to have been dropped. As should be expected from a plan with 32 action points the level of detail provided is quite scarce. The proposals amount to little more than a statement of intentions or direction of travel at this stage.

(Public procurement) Transparency

The plan includes a proposal on public procurement transparency. However, it is simply a re-statement of the coalition’s electoral manifesto without any further information or detail. The government wants to ‘reinforce the capacity’ of the national procurement portal as a means for accountability by providing detailed information, big data and AI. Sure, but how? We’re left to guess. I will add, however, that the real treasure trove of information and data is contained within the various procurement platforms and it is there that the real value of improving procurement data is to be found.

Debarment for public procurement providers

The government is proposing the creation of a debarment list for public procurement providers, presumably covering those found guilty of corruption and as such barred from participating in public procurement procedures. While it is technically possible to operate a blacklist for the grounds of exclusion from Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU I don't think anyone has really made it work at scale within the EU. It is very hard to do, keep up to date and also include the necessary mechanisms for entities to be struck down from the list or for self-cleaning to be assessed. Personally, I think the existence of self-cleaning is problematic in and of itself but I will leave that to those who put it on the table in the 2000s. We are where we are in that regard and I think the government is biting more than it can chew with this one. 

Improving whistleblower protection

While whistleblower protection already exists in Portugal, the government wants to improve the protection offered to those who specifically blow the whistle on corruption allegations and collusion in public procurement. From the way this proposal its drafted it seems the increased protection is to be offered in connection only with procurement for both types of whistleblowers, something that seems shortsighted since both crimes are incredibly difficult to prove. There is also no indication on what (if anything) is currently wrong with whistleblowing protection in the country.

Advanced training for procurement professionals

Probably the least expected suggestion in the list is the recognition by the Portuguese government that procurement officials need proper (advanced) training to do their job. Training and workforce capacity are not new ideas on how to improve procurement and I am glad to see their inclusion here. Having said that, this cannot be a ‘once and done’ strategy - which is my fear to be honest - and to be done well it costs significant amounts of money and allocation of resources. I happen to know a bit about this due to my involvement on a procurement masters run in Belgrade for procurement professionals since 2018. Upskilling 150+ procurement professionals has cost funders (mostly the EBRD but not only) a tidy. Yes, I am well aware it can be done more cheaply and with them piled well high but this is a hard piece of work that will take years to yield results.

What is missing

While the proposals contain more about procurement than I had anticipated in a first cursory reading, the reality is that there is not enough detail to assess them properly. Beyond that, there is a glaring omission from the list: reverting the progressive strategic deviation from EU procurement rules under the guise of making sure the Recovery and Resilience Facility fund is spent quickly. I was very critical of the changes back then on corruption grounds and remain so. However, the government is concerned with the implementation of the RRF in Portugal which seems to be behind schedule and while delays seem mostly due to reform implementation there are also delays on the projects themselves. As such, I had no high hopes here.

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