Sector News
Innovative Public Procurement – European Commission Conference in Berlin

Last week the 5th annual European Commission Innovative Public Procurement conference was held at the Swissotel in Berlin. We featured some quick initial views on the Spend Matters UK/Europe website last week. But over the coming days we will dig into the event in greater detail here and look at some of the topics discussed and raised and some of the specific sessions. But let’s start with some further over-arching points, having had the weekend to contemplate the event, as well as some comments from the opening session.

The event was undoubtedly a success, with around 200 people attending. The diversity in terms of nationality or country of origin was pretty good, although it feels like certain countries “punch above their weight” – such as the Baltic states and Portugal. Is there a correlation between how advanced public procurement is in a country and the interest in attending the event? But the mix of practitioners, academics , policy people was good. It would be even better to get some serious Procurement Directors of public bodies in the room, but I suspect the focus of the event would have to change quite significantly before you will get them along.

The event used the Slido app /  platform to collect questions from the audience and run polls – it worked very well technically, but some people felt it restricted real audience interaction. We didn’t actually hear people asking questions or following up. While it would increase the cost of the event, it would be worth the Commission looking at maybe at least one “break out “ session where two or three parallel discussions could take place. That would give people more chance to contribute – we got the feeling plenty of the delegates would be happy to get more involved. It would also give the chance to dig down and look at more specialist areas of interest perhaps.

One immediate question struck me from the opening session and the remarks of the impressive Dr Philp Steinberg – Director-General for Economic Policy in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs. He said that German public sector procurement spend was “between 160 and 360 million euros a year”. That is an amazingly wide range! The “centre” in Germany does not have a clear view of spend across the 16 different states or Länder, which does lead to an obvious question – can their central  government really do anything useful to improve public procurement if it has so little data?

On the more positive side, he said that public procurement has worked well and shown that there is enough flexibility in the system to handle the urgent requirements arising from Germany taking in over 800,000 refugees last year.

Irmfried Schwimann, Deputy D-G in the Internal Market group at the Commission, gave us an overview of innovation in the procurement context. She focused mainly on “procurement of innovation” rather than innovative procurement and described the “qualitative importance” of public procurement which is even greater than its value of some 1.9 trillion across the EU every year. That comes from driving productive investments and using  procurement to pursue other worthwhile state objectives.

There is more focus on procurement of innovation in the recent directives although she admits that knowledge of the innovation partnership procedure needs spreading more widely. But governments can act as first customers for start-ups and create good conditions for such firms. We need to be open to disruptive change; there should be a clear commitment from contracting authorities to use the “toolbox” that the new regulations provide.

She mentioned that there have been successes (it would have been good to have perhaps heard one or two named examples), and central bodies should consider allocating some spend to “innovation”, and the use of innovation brokers to link buyers to start-ups was another interesting option.

She did also touch on innovative procurement; the use of technology and eProcurement in Estonia and cross-border procurement are two good examples (both discussed later in the day). She also mentioned work with the European Space Agency that is making data available from satellites; sounds interesting, we need to know more! So, she said to finish, we need a new mindset that is open to innovative public procurement, to turn “opportunities into reality”.

It was a good start to the day; in our next article we will look at the panel discussion on public procurement of innovation.