More tailored rules for social services in procurement

Ahead of our upcoming joint event “Social economy enterprises and public procurement: a win-win combination for social inclusion” at the European Platform against Poverty & Social Inclusion Convention (EPAP) on November 20-21, for those who followed us last week, this is the second article of a series of three focusing on one specific opportunity that the new public procurement directive provides for social economy enterprises and non-profit service providers to promote social inclusion objectives.

This week we will focus on the new provisions laying down the rules for procurement procedures – i.e. the acquisition of goods, services or works from an outside party – for social services. Social services fall into the list of services that benefit from the so-called “special regime”: first of all a higher threshold – €750,000 instead of €500,000 – from which member states are obliged to abide by the rules of the directive; secondly, rules that should help contracting authorities to design procedures that better reflect the specific characteristics of these services.

We recommend that member states ensure that social services are only awarded to external parties on the basis of the best-quality ratio rather than simply the lowest cost. The best-quality ratio is an adaptation of the MEAT procedure previously used (Most Economically Advantageous Tender) – a set of criteria that include price and other criteria such as quality.

The use of the best price-quality ratio gives the opportunity to include specific quality criteria that are essential in the delivery of social services. Our members testify that, especially in times of crisis, contracting authorities have mostly used the lowest price criterion, in certain cases by drastically decreasing the cost of services. This has had a detrimental effect on the quality of the service, and very often on the working conditions of the social and health workforce. Neglecting the quality of these services risks going against basic social rights as endorsed in various international charters. For social services, quality is essential in order for the service to achieve its goal of meeting a need. As opposed to other “network” services of general or public interest, such as water provision, they are not provided within a “normal” supplier/consumer relationship; rather, an “asymmetric” one due to the position of the service user in relation to the service provider, and the personal nature of the service. In addition, investing in quality social services, in particular preventive services, in many cases reduces long-term care needs, and therefore reduces expenditure.

Contracting authorities should also take into account other principles that are essential for the delivery of social services. Contracts should have a reasonable duration to ensure the continuity of service delivery. The services procured should also be accessible and affordable, and promote the involvement and empowerment of users.

The new directive also gives the possibility to reserve tendering procedures for social services to social enterprises that have a social objective, and mainly reinvests its profits in the activities of the enterprise. The duration of these contracts is a maximum of three years; after three years a social enterprise cannot extend the duration of a reserved contract for the same service. However, it can benefit from another reserved contract for a different service.