Good Practice
A Practical Guide To Public Procurement – Abby Semple’s New Book is Essential Reading

We briefly reviewed Abby Semple’s book “A Practical Guide To Public Procurement” on our UK/Europe site recently, but we thought it was worth a longer look here given its focus. It is published by the Oxford University Press , priced at £95 – a lot of money, but as we will see, it is a serious reference book, and certainly not positioned at the casual reader.

It is aimed very much at the organisational or library buyer, and for many, it will be worth every penny. In summary, it is a book that should be bought, we suggest, by pretty much every public sector contracting authority, as well as consultants, lawyers and any major supplier to the public sector who needs to understand how the EU process and regulations should work and sometimes do work.

Semple is a Trinity College Dublin law graduate who over the last seven years has worked as a consultant for Achilles in Ireland and as an interim and consultant for various public sector organisations. She is also active on the academic and speaking circuit around Europe -she gave a very good speech at the ICPS Cardiff event, which we reported on here.

This is her first book, and deserves to be a standard reference work concerning the new directives, which were published in November 2014. I simply do not know how she has managed to produce this in the time available; 250 pages of commentary and advice on the new EU regulations, all very well annotated and with over 200 examples of referenced procurement related legal cases, as well as her own judgement and interpretation. In summary, this is an excellent addition to the public procurement body of knowledge.

As Semple says in the Preface, “this book is an attempt to synthesize three distinct perspectives on procurement which often seem to be at cross-purposes; those of the lawyer, the practitioner and the policy-maker”. So in the book, she looks at how the rules inform practice, and how some of the inherent contradictions in European public procurement can be handled. She argues that legal skills are now essential in public procurement; it is hard to argue against that when you consider the complexity of many of the areas laid out here.

The structure of the book is clear and sensible. Semple starts with a chapter on the scope of the 2014 directives, then moves on to the underlying principles of the EU public procurement regime. A chapter covering all of the allowed procedures follows, including the new Innovation Partnership. Further chapters run though specifications and award criteria; contract modifications; value for money, and environmental and social responsibility.

That last area is one in which Semple has worked extensively, and the depth of her knowledge is evident in the book as she reviews case law, the development of good practice and generally goes well beyond just reviewing the regulations. She also critiques the need for sustainability requirements to “link to the subject matter” which the regulations require. She thoughtfully discusses how this might work and ends up asking “Could the principle of proportionality provider a more appropriate test than the link to the subject matter in determining the legitimacy of environmental and social criteria”?

The final chapter is probably my favourite; a really useful and very interesting look at “remedies and implications for practice”, where Semple runs through the remedies regime both at EU level and more specifically in the UK and Ireland. She looks at the “approach taken to time limits, disclosure, interim relief, resolution of substantive claims and the award of damages, set aside and declarations of ineffectiveness”. Why my favourite? Simply that Semple illustrates her points with numerous examples of real cases, which generally make fascinating reading. Let’s face it, if you claim to be a public procurement expert, you really need to be able to quote confidently the findings of the Fastweb or Turning Point Ltd v Norfolk County Council cases!

My only criticism comes when she moves away from the regulations into best practice territory; for instance, she recommends a method of converting prices in bids into numerical scores that I and a number of others believe is flawed. Indeed, we believe this method is illegal in Portugal, for instance. That method is where the score for one bidder is calculated as the price quoted by the lowest cost bidder divided by the bidder in question’s price. (See our critique here). One point for Semple to consider reviewing in the second edition, anyway, but a small negative to set against the many positives here.

Clearly, a book about legal directives is not going to be a light read, but Semple writes very well and clearly, avoiding overly “legal” language. Perhaps working as a consultant rather than a lawyer has helped her to keep it pretty much as readable as you possibly could, without losing the rigour of the analysis. All in all, it is an extremely impressive achievement, and I suspect Semple has the potential to become an influential figure in European public procurement for many years to come if she manages her career properly (the Millennial Generation’s Sue Arrowsmith perhaps)? You can buy the book here; and if you are interested enough in public procurement to get this far, you probably should!

Going right back to the preface, “An understanding of how rules inform practice, both at the individual organization level and in aggregate, is essential” she says. We agree, and this book is destined to become a standard reference work to help practitioners, suppliers, lawyers, policy-makers and advisers achieve that understanding for many years to come.