Why is entering into multiple procurement-related free trade agreements problematic?

by Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Law and Innovation

Banana stem cross section. Photo Credit: Ian Jacobs

Post-Brexit, the UK has been repositioning itself in the global trade scene. Focusing on trade-related public procurement liberalisation, the first two moves for the UK were: one, to join the World Trade Agreement Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), of which it had been a member via the EU, and two, to enter into a comprehensive procurement chapter with the EU in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). As a result of these two moves, the UK largely consolidated the pre-Brexit status quo and ensured continuity in market access for UK suppliers abroad, as well as foreign suppliers in the UK.

The next move is now for the UK to expand procurement-related trade liberalisation via free trade agreements (FTAs), of which it has signed one with Australia and another with New Zealand. The UK is also seeking accession to other multilateral FTAs covering procurement, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Interestingly, both Australia and New Zealand are parties to the GPA and to the CPTPP, so the UK is about to create a triple layer of regulation of procurement liberalisation with these two countries, as all relevant procurement exercises will be subjected to the GPA, the CPTPP and the FTAs. Is this a problematic strategy? (more…)

Can artificial intelligence bring corruption in public procurement to an end?

By Professor Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Law and Innovation (University of Bristol Law School)

Preventing, detecting, and sanctioning corruption in public procurement is one of the main goals of all systems of regulation applicable to the expenditure of public funds via contract (see eg Williams-Elegbe, 2012). Despite constant and regularly renewed efforts to fight procurement corruption at an international (such as the UN Convention against Corruption, or the 2016 OECD’s Preventing Corruption in Public Procurement report) and domestic level (see eg the UK’s 2020 ‘Local government procurement: fraud and corruption risk review’), corruption remains a pervasive problem in any given jurisdiction. Of course, there are different forms and degrees of corruption infiltration in different procurement systems but – if any evidence was needed that no system is corruption-free – pandemic-related procurement served as a clear reminder that this is the case (see eg Transparency International, 2021; as well as Good Law Project v Cabinet Office [2021] EWHC 1569 (TCC)). It should then not be surprising that the possibility that artificial intelligence (AI) could ‘change the rules of the game’ (eg Santiso, 2019) and bring procurement corruption to an end is receiving significant attention. In a recent paper*, I critically assess the contribution that AI can make to anti-corruption efforts in the public procurement context and find that, while it could make a positive incremental contribution, it will not transform this area of regulation and, in any case, AI’s potential is significantly constrained by existing data architectures and due process requirements.  (more…)

Are there any gains to be had from the proposed new provider selection model for NHS commissioning?

 

By Prof Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School). 

One of the relatively recent developments in the post-Brexit review of UK public procurement law is the February 2021 proposal for the replacement of the current rules on the commissioning of healthcare services for the purposes of the English NHS (for background, you can watch here), with a new provider selection regime (‘the proposal’). This proposal forms part of the broader set of proposed reforms contained in the Health and Care Bill 2021-22 (on which the House of Commons Library has published a useful research briefing). 

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Procurement in the time of COVID-19

By Prof Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Law and Innovation (University of Bristol Law School).

Public procurement is at the forefront of the response to the challenges of COVID-19. Only well-equipped hospitals can save patients’ lives without endangering those of the medical, nursing and support workers in the NHS. Shortages of relatively simple consumables such as personal protection equipment (PPE), but also cleaning and hygiene products, can endanger lives and have devastating effects on the resilience of the healthcare system to (continue to) cope with the pandemic. Shortages of essential equipment such as ventilators can have even more direct nefarious impacts on individual lives.

The importance of public procurement and supply chain management has rarely been so prominently in the public eye and political debate—except, perhaps, in the case of notorious procurement scandals, such as the recent Brexit-related #ferrygate. In this blog post, I reflect on some of the emerging issues in the procurement response to COVID-19 and on the perhaps even bigger challenges that will follow, from a regulatory perspective. (more…)

A Governance Revolution or Costly Distraction? Reassessing the promises of blockchain for public procurement governance

By Prof Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Blockchain or, more generally, decentralised ledger technologies (DLTs), are capturing the attention of policymakers. ‘Blockchain’ has become shorthand to refer to technology usually identified with the properties of a decentralised, trustless and immutable (or at least, tamper-proof) mechanism for information verification and recording that can enable self-executing digital transactions between anonymous parties (‘smart contracts’).

Blockchain’s touted tamper-proofness and potential to enable smart contracts are driving initiatives that seek to create automated ‘trust in trustless environments’ for public sector use cases, in particular concerning activities highly-exposed to corruption risks and/or the automation of administrative procedures devoid of discretion.

There are high economic stakes at play in public procurement—which represents around 12% of GDP and over a third of public expenditure in OECD countries, and even higher proportions in other economies. Coupled with the growing (over)reliance of policymakers on business consultants, the hype around blockchain—and, more generally, about public procurement 4.0—is perhaps particularly intense in this field of GovTech and RegTech.

Some legal scholars are rather optimistically jumping on the ‘disruptive technologies bandwagon’ and identifying blockchain as a main tool to increase the probity and efficiency of procurement governance at a national level.1 Some officially-backed ‘visions for the future’ go as far as promising blockchain-supported global e-procurement platforms capable of covering the entirety of procurement transactions carried out worldwide.

This is creating a set of expectations about how blockchain will revolutionise public procurement governance that does not translate into real action. Even further, I submit, blockchain is and will remain structurally inapt to generate such a governance revolution, for several reasons. (more…)

AI & sustainable procurement: the public sector should first learn what it already owns

By Prof Albert Sanchez-Graells, Professor of Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Photo credit: Flickr

While carrying out research on the impact of digital technologies for public procurement governance, I have realised that the deployment of artificial intelligence to promote sustainability through public procurement holds some promise. There are many ways in which machine learning can contribute to enhance procurement sustainability.

For example, new analytics applied to open transport data can significantly improve procurement planning to support more sustainable urban mobility strategies, as well as the emergence of new models for the procurement of mobility as a service (MaaS).* Machine learning can also be used to improve the logistics of public sector supply chains, as well as unlock new models of public ownership of eg cars. It can also support public buyers in identifying the green or sustainable public procurement criteria that will deliver the biggest improvements measured against any chosen key performance indicator, such as CO2 footprint, as well as support the development of robust methodologies for life-cycle costing.

However, it is also evident that artificial intelligence can only be effectively deployed where the public sector has an adequate data architecture.** While advances in electronic procurement and digital contract registers are capable of generating that data architecture for the future, there is a significant problem concerning the digitalisation of information on the outcomes of past procurement exercises and the current stock of assets owned and used by the public sector. In this blog, I want to raise awareness about this gap in public sector information and to advocate for the public sector to invest in learning what it already owns as a potential major contribution to sustainability in procurement, in particular given the catalyst effect this could have for a more circular procurement economy. (more…)

Some thoughts on the frustrations of carrying out Brexit-related research (in the UK)

By Dr Pedro Telles, Senior Lecturer in Law (Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University) and Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Britain in the Crazed Brexit Vortex

Brexit, its research and its teaching are increasingly becoming a field of study on their own—see eg the illuminating contributions to the special issue edited by C Wallace & T Hervey on ‘Brexit and the Law School’ (2019) 53(2) Law Teacher 133-229, some of which build on the earlier series of SLS ‘Brexit and the Law School’ Seminars, one of which Albert had the pleasure to host at the University of Bristol Law School in July 2017. This seems rather natural, as it is hard to overstate the impact that Brexit is having on the work of academics active in all areas, but particularly for public and EU law scholars. In this post, we offer some personal reflections on the frustrations of carrying out Brexit-related research, some of which are related to Brexit and its unforeseeability, while others are derived from more general constraints on the ways legal research is published and assessed.

Researching a moving target …

The first issue that concerns us is the need to try to foresee what is likely to happen along the Brexit process (itself unknown and highly volatile), which puts legal scholars in a difficult bind because this is clearly a politics-driven phenomenon that curbs almost every imaginable rule or precedent remotely applicable to a comparable situation. We are not sure that legal scholars are in the best position to offer policy forecasts but producing research that is of any use to policy-makers requires such an effort. (more…)

UK Universities must soon comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

In 2016, the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive to foster better access to the websites and mobile applications underpinning public services – in particular by people with disabilities, and especially persons with vision or hearing impairments. This Directive is meant to complement the European Accessibility Act and to implement the EU’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 9 UNCRPD requires the adoption of appropriate measures to ensure equal access to information and communication technologies, including the Internet, for persons with disabilities. Under the Web Accessibility Directive, this translates into an obligation for public sector bodies to ensure that their websites and apps comply with a 2014 EU standard adapted to the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) at level AA (currently WCAG 2.0).

The Web Accessibility Directive must be transposed into UK law by 23 September 2018 and will generate obligations for new websites from 2019, for pre-existing websites from 2020, and for all public sector apps from 2021. The UK Government is currently analysing the responses to a public consultation on the draft Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (the Web Accessibility Regulations), and the Government Digital Service is developing a host of initiatives to roll-out accessibility policies throughout the public sector. This blog post explains that UK Universities and further education institutions are covered by the Web Accessibility Directive. They must be clearly placed under the scope of application of the future Web Accessibility Regulations and be supported by the Government Digital Service and the Department for Education to ensure that their websites and apps comply with the relevant accessibility standards as soon as possible. This is not only legally mandated, but also essential to the public service mission of universities and other educational institutions. (more…)

New book on enforcement of labour standards through public procurement

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).

Smart procurement aims to leverage public buying power in pursuit of social, environmental and innovation goals. Socially-orientated smart procurement has been a controversial issue under EU law. The extent to which the Court of Justice (ECJ) has supported or rather constrained its development has been intensely debated by academics and practitioners alike. After the slow development of a seemingly permissive approach, the ECJ case law reached an apparent turning point a decade ago in the often criticised judgments in Rüffert and Laval, which left a number of open questions.

More recently, Bundesdruckerei and RegioPost have furthered the ECJ case law on socially orientated smart procurement and aimed to clarify the limits within which Member States can use it to enforce labour standards. This case law opens up additional possibilities, but it also creates legal uncertainty concerning the interaction of the EU rules on the posting of workers, public procurement and fundamental internal market freedoms. These developments have been magnified by the reform of the EU public procurement rules in 2014.

This freshly-released book assesses the limits that the revised EU rules and the more recent ECJ case law impose on socially-orientated smart procurement and, more generally, critically reflects on potential future developments in this area of intersection of several strands of EU economic law. The book includes four contributions by Bristol scholars, including Prof Phil Syrpis‘ perspective from an EU constitutional law standpoint, Prof Tonia Novitz‘s reflections on collective bargaining and social dumping in posting and procurement, Ms Nina Boeger‘s thoughts on public procurement and business for value, and my own views on the competition and State aid implications of the use of procurement to enforce labour standards.

The collection of essays includes additional insights by colleagues at Oxford, Cambridge, Turin, Birmingham, Leicester, Warsaw, and the UNCITRAL, and is the result of a conference held at the University of Bristol Law School in May 2016. The papers have been constantly updated and include an assessment of the agreed revision of the Posted Workers Directive in the fall of 2017.

Full details of the book are as follows: A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards–Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018).

Brexit and Public Procurement Reform: What Next?

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

Eight months ago, by giving formal notice under Article 50 TEU, the United Kingdom formally started the process of leaving the European Union (so called Brexit). This has immersed the UK Government and EU Institutions in a two-year period of negotiations to disentangle the UK from EU law by the end of March 2019, and to devise a new legal framework for UK-EU trade afterwards. The UK will thereafter be adjusting its trading arrangements with the rest of the world, and the Government has recently stated its intention for the UK to remain a member of the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (GPA).

In this context, public procurement regulation is broadly seen as an area where a UK ‘unshackled by EU law’ would be able to turn to a lighter-touch and more commercially-oriented regulatory regime, subject only to GPA constraints. There are indications that the UK would simultaneously attempt to create a particularly close relationship with the US, although recent changes in US international trade policy may pose some questions on that trade strategy. Overall, then, Brexit has created a scenario where UK public procurement law and policy may be significantly altered. In a paper* recently published in the Public Contract Law Journal with Dr Pedro Telles, I speculate on the possibility for Brexit to actually result in a significant reform of UK public procurement law (of which I remain sceptical). (more…)