Do you really think that social and green procurement is boring?

Those who think that public procurement is boring should have attended the conference organised by the European Commission last week (March 19, 2014), in particular the panel "Social and Green" to change their mind!

First, Marc Tarabella, EP rapporteur, reminded the audience of the hard work he had to do with his colleagues in the Parliament: in fact 2500 amendments were tabled on the Commission's proposal. But this hard work paid off if you consider these main achievements: the new directive allows public procurement procedures to promote sustainable investments, from a social, environmental and economic point of view; it also triggers public authorities to base their purchases on quality criteria rather than solely the price or cost. The sub-contracting chain has also been made more transparent.

Heide Rühle, EP shadow rapporteur echoed Tarabella. The new rules offer opportunities to promote sustainable development (e.g. through referring to the production processes or by using labels) while improving at the same time legal certainty: indeed there are more possibilities to make sustainable choices, but the link with the subject matter of the contract has to be clear.

Then Kathleen Walker-Shaw (EESC, GMB trade union) stressed that the merit of the new directive is to raise a debate on quality: what is quality work? what are quality services? She then highlighted as additional improvements the concept of the life-cycle cost, the social clause, and the clarification about the scope of the directive.

With the fourth speaker, Arnhield Dardi Gjonnes from Business Europe, we started hearing a completely different tone. In her view, implementing social and environmental criteria are the most difficult thing to do when it comes to public procurement. The focus of procurement policy is to promote best value for money, efficiency in public spending and non-discrimination among economic operators. There is more legal certainty concerning environmental questions, but when it comes to social questions we enter into an almost unknown land. For example, the social clause that requires the respect of collective agreements is going to make life difficult for SMEs which do not have those agreements, with the consequence that SMEs are excluded from the procurement market!

Marc Tarabella counter-argued that the respect of collective agreements does not go against SMEs. In fact, big companies often organise themselves to escape from the respect of collective agreements, as the posting of workers directive shows: this unfair competition directly affects SMEs. Therefore, this directive is there to re-establish fair competition between SMEs and big companies.

Kathleen Walker-Shaw asked what the costs are of not implementing the social provisions: for instance, what are the costs of a father dying on construction works because safety rules are not respected?

From the audience, Penny Clarke from EPSU, stressed that complexity is not bad, implementing the social provisions is a process, a learning process. Catherine Weller from Client Earths asked: do we intend to keep on looking at social and environmental questions as if they were two completely separate things?

Marc Tarabella concluded this panel by reiterating that the concept of sustainable development is to forge links between economic, social and environmental aspects: the new directive provides an opportunity to apply this concept in practice by giving more possibilities to contracting authorities to decide on how to spend public money for the benefit of citizens, the public administration and businesses.

Therefore, as everyone wants public money to be spent in an efficient way, why can we not use procurement contracts to achieve simultaneous economic, social and environmental objectives when feasible? Efficiency is not only about cutting costs rather it is about using money in a more intelligent way: you pay one and you get two or three! This is why we at Social Platform will keep on working to help member states and contracting authorities to understand this.