Technology & Tools
Public eProcurement Conference – an Overview from Porto

The third European e-public procurement conference took place in Porto on Tuesday this week, chaired and hosted again by Professor Luis Valadares Tavares. Porto is a fascinating city, an interesting mix with some really run down areas even very close to the centre, but also one of the most beautiful settings for any city I’ve seen, on hills running down to the wide Douro river, fascinating buildings, and of course lots of things to see if you are a fan of vintage port (as I am)!

There was a good mix of countries represented at the event- at least ten – and one of the highlights (assuming you are a public procurement geek, that is) was a round-up of how transposition of the new EU procurement directives is progressing, covering no less than nine different countries within the community.

In terms of catching up with people we know, special congratulations go to our friend, academic, writer, lawyer and occasional Spend Matters contributor Pedro Telles of Swansea University, and his new wife, who got married last Friday in Barcelona – and he still came to the event! There’s an interesting idea for a honeymoon, attend a public procurement event. (Apparently his wife did not mind as she had a conference to attend as well).

Anyway, enough of the social aspects; let’s focus on the procurement messages. There were around 100 people at the event, not a bad turn-out, and the audience was a good mix of people. There were quite a few academics, some lawyers (not too many), technologists and policy people (e.g. from various competition authorities) and procurement practitioners. But it would be good to see more real practitioners there; eProcurement is an area of deep interest to real procurement executives in the public sector, and actually the agenda went well beyond just eProcurement anyway.

There was a lot of content packed into the single (long) day. It is always the dilemma for conferences and conference organisers; how much formal content do you include and how much time do you allow for questions and discussion? I would have liked a little more of the latter at the event, as most presentations did not allow time for questions (many speakers were only allowed 10 or 15 minutes anyway). But then most speakers provided real value, so it is tough to cut down on presentations to make that space for the discussion.

We will pick up on some presentations in more detail in the days to come, but here are a few overall observations on the topics discussed.

1. In technology terms, the biggest discussion issues appear to be around inter-operability rather than on other issues such as specific functionality improvements. I’m sure firms are still pursuing those improvements, but it may be that most providers have a good view now of what users need from systems – even if they don’t always get that. But looking ahead, how different platforms will work together is a key issue for buyers and suppliers.

2. The new EU procurement directives were written with good intent – to give contracting authorities more flexibility, allow buyers to be more commercail, yet protect the treaty principles of fairness, transparency and open access. But when you talk to a range of experts, you get a sense that the regulations have opened up a lot of areas of uncertainty in terms of how they should be implemented or indeed what they really are supposed to mean! We may see a lot of new case law being developed over coming years.

3. In terms of implementing the new directives, it is clear that different countries are moving at very different paces. The UK has already transposed (although not everyone is happy with the speed of that, as some contracting authorise are still trying to catch up with what they need to do). Some countries are proceeding in a structured manner with what feels like appropriate pace – others, like Germany, seem to be struggling.

4. The level of real understanding of eProcurement in the public sector world is still very variable – and that is being polite. There were a few horror stories exchanged over lunch about governments around the world making truly bad decisions on their eProcurement strategy and approach. And of course that has major implications. It is not just a case of wasting money on the eProcurement platform itself, for instance, but it can set back the progress of public procurement improvement generally for years. I was told of one country that chose an eProcurement solution back in 2004 – and it is still not working properly.

There were other points from the day, and we will report on some of the keynotes shortly, such as Professor Gustavo Piga’s inspirational remarks about the role that public procurement should play in helping Europe recover economically. Do check here for more on that to come, the transposition round-up, and other highlights from Porto over the next week or two.