Thanks to Supply Management website for drawing my attention to a new e-book, which is a collection of chapters from different academics and researchers, all around the theme of public procurement in times of emergency.
“Procurement in focus – Rules, Discretion and Emergencies” is published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), a network of over 1600 research economists based mainly in European universities, and it is edited by Oriana Bandiera, Erica Bosio and Giancarlo Spagnolo. It can be downloaded here (free of charge).
It is somewhat academic in nature, as you might expect, but it has interesting and useful commentary on issues related to emergencies and corruption – and indeed more general insight into public procurement issues. The chapter on procurement competence, for instance, applies more widely than simply during a crisis.
The authors start by defining this “problem” with public procurement.
The procurement of public goods and services is a textbook example of moral hazard: an agent buys goods that he does not use with money he does not own. The agent’s goal is typically set to achieve ‘value for money’ for the taxpayer, but value for money is hard to measure and often not entirely under the control of the agent. The latter makes the contract between the state and its procurement agents incomplete and, for economists, very interesting.
This issue of moral hazard and “agency” leads to a fundamental issue with public procurement. As the authors say:
The core theme that runs through the book is the fundamental tension between rules and discretion. Rules limit agents’ ability to pursue their private interests at the expense of the taxpayers, but discretion allows them to use their knowledge of the context and react quickly to unforeseen changes.
During the pandemic, and at other times of disaster or emergency, procurement regulations are often suspended or more flexible approaches are allowed. That increases the speed and flexibility with which important procurement activities can be delivered, but it also increases the chance of fraud, corruption and waste. How to balance those two aspects is tricky, to say the least, as the furore in the UK over PPE procurement last year has shown.
There is no doubt that buyers had to move quickly to save lives; but did that speed and lack of process regulation allow corruption or at best “cronyism” to thrive? It certainly did cost the UK taxpayer billions, as more PPE than was really needed was bought, at hugely inflated prices compared to those that were usual in the steady-state market.
From a Bad Buying viewpoint, corruption is often hard to identify and therefore hard to measure in an academically rigorous way. So researchers generally use “proxy measures” – for example, looking at the number of contracts awarded without competition, single bidding situations, or very short deadlines for bids. Clearly, we saw more of this behaviour during the first emergency period of the pandemic. However, in some cases, emergency procedures are still in place, and the book questions why this continued higher risk of corruption is being allowed to continue now, given that in most cases, supply is no longer quite so emergency in nature.
The chapter by Mihaly Fazekas, Shrey Nishchal and Tina Soreide, titled “Public procurement under and after emergencies” is particularly relevant to what we have seen in the last 18 months or so. It acknowledges that procurement must be handled differently in times of emergency, and makes these sensible recommendations:
- Preparations for emergency situations should include defining crisis-ready contracting procedures, outlining fundamental principles of crisis response, putting in place effective ex post controls and setting out a risk-based sanctions framework. Controls should be targeted at high-risk procurement without disruptive, wide ranging monitoring frameworks.
- Monitoring and controls are best reoriented towards outputs and results rather than procedural correctness because deviations from standard open tendering processes (e.g. short advertisements) are unavoidable in times of crisis (Fazekas and Sanchez 2021).
- Strengthening non-bureaucratic controls of public procurement outcomes may counter-balance loosened ex ante procedural checks. For example, greater attention from civil society and the media may contribute to stronger political accountability, which is likely to increase the cost of corruption in emergency spending.
- While many of the corruption risks in emergency procurement are hard to avoid and control, ringfencing emergency rules both in time and by market is crucial. Obviously, if emergency spending is needed in healthcare, there is little justification for relaxing the rules for building football stadiums, for instance.
Much of the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the fundamental principles and issues of public procurement. It is also very relevant at a time when the UK is putting together its new post-EU public procurement regulations – and we hope to feature more discussion around that here shortly too.