Burden of EU bureaucracy falls on buyers

21 October 2010
After yesterday’s spending review announcement, the last thing public sector buyers need is more bad news. But if you can stop crying into your coffee, you might want to steel yourself and look at the EU’s latest procurement “brainwave”. As we reported earlier this week, the European Commission has decided not enough buyers are using e-procurement. And as only 5 per cent of total spend is processed this way – compared to an EU target of 50 per cent by 2010 – it’s not difficult to understand their motivation for a change.
 What I find difficult to understand is the response they seem to be shuffling toward – greater regulation (or as the document puts it “more concerted EU-level efforts to encourage alignment or standardisation”) for buyers. “With the benefit of hindsight, there are some areas which might have benefited from a more pro-active and/or directive approach,” the consultation warns ominously. “Is there further scope for the introduction of regulatory incentives in EU legislation to encourage the use e-procurement?” it asks. “Alternatively, should EU procurement legislation clarify the possibility for individual Member States to require the use of e-procurement under certain circumstances?” I’ve no problem with more use of e-procurement. As the Commission says, it has benefits for both buyers and suppliers, identified as greater transparency, reduced costs and increased speed. But, as it also points out, it’s not free or cheap for either party. What I have a problem with is that this is bound to mean more bureaucracy and headaches for public sector purchasers. And, of course, the consultation doesn’t entertain the idea that current bureaucratic procurement rules could possibly be a barrier to adoption. Whatever the benefits, greater standardisation is bound to lead to more box-ticking, less flexibility and perhaps even greater inaccessibility – as the consultation itself points out the current lack of adoption is as much the fault of suppliers. So why must this burden fall on the buyer? Because they are the easiest to regulate. And what will happen to those forward-thinking local authorities, schools and healthcare providers who have already taken the initiative and deployed a variety of e-procurement systems when these fail to meet a new “EU standard”? As our debate on EU procurement rules demonstrated the stick approach is the worst possible way to encourage buy-in among users (ironically, as those who have deployed e-procurement in their organisation are probably aware). But it’s not all bad. In fact, one of the suggestions raised by the consultation is to reduce the legal obligations on buyers if they use e-procurement. “Would this make the use of e-procurement systems more attractive?” it asks. We might see adoption rates above 90 per cent if this proposal were to be implemented. You have a chance to make a difference and tell the EU what you think. The consultation is open until 31 January next year. Email responses to markt-consult-eproc@ec.europa.eu
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