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Document 52012AE1715

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — A strategy for e-procurement’ COM(2012) 179 final

OJ C 11, 15.1.2013, p. 44–48 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)



Official Journal of the European Union

C 11/44

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — A strategy for e-procurement’

COM(2012) 179 final

2013/C 11/10

Rapporteur: Mr IOZIA

On 20 April 2012 the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — A strategy for e-procurement

COM(2012) 179 final.

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 25 October 2012.

At its 484th plenary session, held on 14 and 15 November 2012 (meeting of 14 November), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 120 votes to none with 3 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomes the communication from the Commission, attaching great importance to rapid transition to a general e-procurement system, as successfully trialled in a number of Member States. The figures relating to the public procurement market are considerable, accounting for some 20 % of EU GDP.


At a highly negative stage in the economic cycle such as the present, marked by budget adjustments that are placing an enormous burden on the public, Europe is seen in very negative terms, as are the initiatives it takes. The European institutions need to make greater efforts to open up more and to spell out clearly the reasons for making particular decisions. The Commission, the only European institution empowered to make legislative proposals, bears a specific responsibility not only to inform but also to convince its citizens of the purpose of its proposals. The EESC is working in this direction, and the Commission should cooperate more closely with the other European institutions, including the consultative bodies.


The EESC emphasises that the straight cuts made in public budgets, leading to the early loss of more senior and qualified personnel involved in public procurement activities, are progressively impoverishing the human capital available to public administrations, and urges the Member States to avoid indiscriminate cuts. They produce only short-lived improvements to the accounts, and external resources must often be brought in since the remaining workforce has not yet acquired the necessary professional expertise.


The EESC underlines the importance of e-procurement due to the potential benefits stemming from:

transparency, anti-fraud measures,

market efficiency,

the extension of the public procurement market to SMEs,

overall savings for public administrations,

integration and development of the internal market,

modernisation of public administrations and development of the European digital agenda,

new opportunities for businesses offering technological services,

career development for public administration and company employees.


The Commission believes that the objective of completing this transition by mid-2016 is feasible (more probably 2017, given the two years needed for transposition), representing a massive acceleration in comparison with what has been achieved in the last eight years. The EESC sees this as a proper and ambitious objective, which can only be achieved if certain conditions regarding standardisation, interoperability and accessibility, as called for in the present opinion, are met. If they are not, the market risks further fragmentation.


The EESC supports the proposed objectives, but must however point out that so far, in spite of the enormous efforts made, the percentage of e-procurement remains very low. The Commission is currently completing a study, to be published before the end of the year, which will show the level reached in each country. Italy, for example, has reached 4 %.


The EESC is strongly critical of the reluctance of some Member States to cooperate: they are resisting change and do not want to open up the public procurement market to competition, wishing to protect national companies and avoid giving up considerable economic and political power.


In its communication, the Commission describes this attitude as "inertia"; the EESC considers it rather to be "passive resistance" to change and susceptibility to protectionist national pressures. Publication of all procurement procedures in electronic form would make setting a threshold for European-type procedures pointless and harmful, and is something SMEs in particular are calling for.


The EESC considers that maintaining thresholds hampers the development of the internal market and jeopardises competition on a level playing field.


Communication. The general public, businesses, and local and national authorities must be convinced of the usefulness of this instrument. For this to occur, resources must be put into integrated information, communication and training activities, avoiding one-off initiatives.


Transparency. One of the immediate effects of e-publishing public procurement procedures is to raise the level of transparency. The EESC suggests that in addition to the publication of tender notices, the state of progress of work against planned timetables and the date of conclusion of work or delivery of goods should also be included. Transparency will help make fraud increasingly difficult, bringing additional savings for public administrations and enhancing market efficiency.


Interoperability and standardisation. The EESC attaches particular importance to issues relating to interoperability between different platforms (often portals) and to the standardisation of procedures and of the e-documents exchanged at the various stages of the procurement process. The proliferation of individual platforms and of different formats and procedures presents an obstacle to the automation of public procurement and acts as a disincentive to its adoption by suppliers, especially SMEs. The use of a single European (or international) standard for e-procurement procedures should be recommended without further delay by the Commission; this applies in particular to the work carried out by the CEN within the workshop on Business Interoperability Interfaces (BII) for Public Procurement in Europe (1), and implementation of BII profiles in PEPPOL specifications.


Fragmentation. The lack of a European strategy has led to platforms and identification instruments that do not communicate with each other being adopted at both national and regional level (Germany, Italy and others). According to SME associations, this nearly always leads to a decision not to submit a bid, or sometimes to excessive management costs, especially for SMEs. The EESC believes that the EU must act to counter market fragmentation effectively.


Accessibility and straightforwardness. The EESC stresses that the benefits for the market, public administrations and the general public can only be reaped if systems are accessible, ensuring low costs, systems that are easy to operate and maintain, standardised building blocks, procedures and solutions and a shared glossary as a means of resolving language problems (this too must be accessible and user-friendly), applying the same principles that the Commission has undertaken to observe in the Small Business Act.


Social enterprises. The EESC recommends that, in the shift to e-instruments, great care be taken to ensure that such instruments are accessible to social enterprises. A wide range of social services are currently delivered by these enterprises, who account for a very substantial proportion of all businesses providing care and support services.


European rules on procurement processes exceeding the threshold should provide support for SMEs in meeting the requirements regarding capital and experience; this could include temporary consortiums or associations of companies. Portugal is a case in point. SMEs have won 87 % of bids, but account for only 19 % in value.

2.   Summary of the document


The communication presents the strategic importance of electronic procurement (e-procurement) and sets out the main actions through which the Commission intends to support the transition towards full e-procurement in the EU.


The savings made by administrations that have already switched to e-procurement are in the region of 5 to 20 %. If the lower percentage were to be applied to all EU procurement, savings would amount to more than EUR 100 billion given the overall scale of public procurement.


As foreseen in the 2011 Single Market Act (2), the Commission has put forward a number of proposals relating to public procurement (3) with the aim of completing the transition to e-procurement in the EU by halfway through 2016 (4). The ultimate goal is "straight through e-procurement" with all phases of the procedure from notification (e-notification) to payment (e-payment) being conducted electronically (5).


E-procurement can help improve access to, and the transparency of, procurement opportunities, especially for SMEs, thus stimulating cross-border competition, innovation and growth in the Single Market.


The Commission highlights two main obstacles to the take-up of e-procurement:

the "inertia" exhibited by certain stakeholders. The challenge is to persuade hesitant purchasers and suppliers to change their ingrained habits;

market fragmentation that can emerge from the existence of the wide variety of systems, sometimes technically complex, deployed across the EU.


The Commission sets out a plan of 15 key actions to achieve the proposed objectives.

3.   General comments


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) acknowledges the importance of revising the legal framework for procurement and of a gradual shift to complete automation, making the use of electronic means of communication mandatory in some phases of the supply process.


The Commission's suggested roadmap to the gradual introduction of e-procurement is highly ambitious; if properly adopted, it will be of major benefit to all involved in the public supply market. In view of differences in the development of e-procurement between countries, where fragmentation of solutions and platforms is already occurring, the lack of strategic and operational indications – if certain minimum, basic conditions are not met – could serve to increase market fragmentation.


The development of e-procurement, however, must not be to the detriment of the best bids principle as set out in the proposal for a public procurement directive (6).


The EESC attaches particular importance to issues relating to interoperability between different platforms (often portals) and to the accessibility of processes and the e-documents exchanged at the various stages of the procurement process. An open European (or international) standard should be drawn up for the software used for e-supply in the public sector. The proliferation of individual platforms and of different formats and procedures presents an obstacle to the automation of public procurement and acts as a disincentive to its adoption by suppliers, especially SMEs. The work of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) within the workshop on Business Interoperability Interfaces for Electronic Procurement in Europe has produced "standard interoperable profiles" for implementing standardised software.


In order to overcome existing barriers, the EESC agrees with the Commission's use of specific actions to bring about the mandatory use of open international or European standards for the use of technically interoperable solutions. Guidelines should be drawn up for the proper application of open standards, building on the work carried out by the CEN BII workshop and its implementation within the PEPPOL project. The Digital Agenda for Europe makes explicit reference to an action (7) to support the standardisation of e-procurement via the use of specific technologies that can be implemented by all ICT solution and service providers.


The EESC highlights the key contribution that e-procurement can make to transparency in public sector supply processes and to combating fraud. With electronic tools, the entire process can be monitored and assessed, as can suppliers' performance in it. This information is important in ensuring maximum e-transparency in the public sector, and can provide a powerful incentive for the adoption of e-procurement tools, especially for SMEs. Portugal provides an example of best practice in this field (8), along with Lithuania, where the use of e-notification, e-access and e-submission is now mandatory, with tangible benefits in terms of: a reduction in the price of goods and services purchased (of 14-55 %); a 20-90 % increase in the number of suppliers participating in tenders; and a reduction in the duration of supply processes, from 46 to 11 days.


It is also important that e-procurement initiatives provide support for training SMEs in the use of technologies and in recognising the benefits. Investment in training for public and private sector employees will be crucial. The EESC believes that support for this would be invaluable. SMEs could turn to their category associations.


The language barrier is a reality that is not given proper consideration in the present communication. The information available from e-procurement platforms should be offered in at least one European language other than the national language. This could however entail excessive additional costs. One solution might be for the European Commission to develop a dedicated online e-procurement translation tool.


The Commission fails to mention the visibility issue of procurement procedures below the threshold across the single market, which is of significance to SMEs and micro-businesses in particular. The EESC considers that the moment has come to think about whether thresholds should be retained, given that with e-publication all tenders will be accessible to all.

4.   Specific comments on the planned actions


The EESC agrees that there is a need to shift towards the automation of public procurement. While the Commission emphasises the initial phases of the supply process (publication of notices, access to tender documents, submission of bids, evaluation of proposals and award of contract) it is also important to integrate the various phases subsequent to award of the contract (ordering, invoicing and payment) and to publish the progress of tenders, the problems encountered, implementation times and costs.


Harmonisation of technical requirements is crucial to developing IT solutions and services that can be taken up and used at local, national and cross-border level. In this regard, the EESC strongly urges the Commission to press ahead with Key Action 2. The implications are particularly significant not only for public administrations, but first and foremost for suppliers who will be able to apply solutions that are standardised and interoperable at European level.


Using e-signatures is a complex matter where cross-border transactions are concerned. Actions to facilitate the interoperability of such solutions are therefore desirable. It should however be noted that some countries, such as Portugal for example, have pointed out that difficulties in using e-procurement include the excessive constraints involved in e-signatures and the cost of time-stamping services, as well as interoperability issues between the various e-procurement platforms (9).


Promoting straightforward solutions and best practice clearly provides useful support for public procurement automation projects. The requirements of SMEs, especially at the e-submission stage, must be taken into account when devising the relevant solutions. The results of the work of the Commission's e-Tendering Expert Group are therefore crucial and could be submitted for stakeholder evaluation.


The most important action on which the Commission should focus is how to implement the various solutions for e-procurement in the internal market. The PEPPOL (Pan-European Public Procurement Online) project in particular has involved 11 countries that have developed dedicated technologies to build standardised solutions for the key phases in the supply process and an open platform for exchanging standardised documents, bringing about full interoperability between the various European platforms.


The PEPPOL components include: tools for validation of e-signatures based on electronic certificates issued by European authorities; a Virtual Company Dossier to submit standardised company information (evidence, certificates and attestations); an e-catalogue to submit offers about goods and services in a standardised format; and e-ordering and e-invoicing providing the buyer and suppliers with defined procedures to share common business information. Lastly, it offers a transport infrastructure for electronic documents (network) based on common, national IT compatible standards and interconnecting individual e-procurement communities/systems.


The European Virtual Company Dossier System (EVS) works in a similar way to eCertis (an information system that helps to identify the various certificates and attestations that are often required in procurement procedures in the 27 Member States, Croatia (accession country), Turkey (candidate country) and the three EEA countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) to provide information on the criteria and proof/attestations needed to take part in tenders in the Member States. However, while the eCertis database is currently designed as an information database, EVS supplies further interfaces linking to more services. eCertis should be equipped with features similar to those of the EVS concept. The Commission should guarantee compliance and update the relevant legal information system, providing both the service and technical support.


The EESC hopes that the Commission and the Member States will lend strong support to a stronger role for the OpenPEPPOL association, and highlights the importance of ensuring that the technical specifications devised are maintained, developed and adopted by the European public sector when carrying out public procurement operations. This will guarantee that the various stages in the supply process – both pre- and post-award – are standardised and interoperable, in order to prevent market fragmentation.


The EESC agrees that the development of public e-procurement infrastructure should be supported and funded via the Connecting Europe Facility, building on what has already been achieved by the PEPPOL consortium member countries with the current transport infrastructure (network) linking the various systems in Europe. The EESC underlines the importance of maintaining an open, accessible and secure infrastructure based on shared standards. The Structural Funds should be used in order to facilitate public procurement take-up.


The EESC recommends adopting an integrated communication strategy, building on existing communities, OpenPEPPOL in particular, in cooperation with the Enterprise Europe Network and using networking programmes for regions and municipalities. This communication strategy could be shared between the Commission, OpenPEPPOL and the new project "Pilot A (CIP ICT PSP) Basic Cross Sector Services", for the part that is relevant to public procurement.


The EESC supports the Commission's decision to automate the entire supply process within its own internal services and to make available the open source solutions developed.


The EESC agrees on the need to monitor the take-up of e-tools for public procurement and to define the ensuing benefits. Once the directive is adopted, the Commission should publish a progress report every quarter on the qualitative and quantitative advances made with procurement in each Member State.


At the same time, an international-level dialogue on the use of e-tools for public procurement is crucial to achieving greater transparency and competition. The use of international standards has again been confirmed as a necessary tool for this purpose, and developments in this area should therefore be monitored. There is a particular need to recommend and monitor the use by the European public sector of CEN BII and PEPPOL specifications in the conduct of e-procurement procedures.

Brussels, 14 November 2012.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee



(2)  The Single Market Act identifies a series of measures to boost the European economy and create jobs.

(3)  Proposals of 20 December 2011: COM(2011) 895 final; COM(2011) 896 final and COM(2011) 897 final.

(4)  The proposals stipulate mandatory use of e-procurement at the latest two years after the transposition deadline, which under the current timetable for adoption should allow implementation by mid-2016.

(5)  Procurement processes cover two main phases: the pre-award phase and the post-award phase. Pre-award comprises all the sub-phases of procurement up to the award of the contract (publication of notices, access to tender documents, submission of bids, evaluation of the proposals and award of the contract). Post-award comprises all the sub-phases of procurement after the award of the contract (ordering, invoicing and payment).

(6)  EESC opinion: OJ C 191, 29.6.2012, p. 84.