Contractors call for EU procedures to go digital during coronavirus — and beyond

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Contractors urge the European Commission to go fully digital and continue to build out its e-procurement system. Photo by: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

BRUSSELS — As the COVID-19 lockdown continues, how will the European Commission deal with tenders? That’s the question every consultant working with the European Union is asking themselves, according to Christophe Leroy, operations director at Stantec, an EU development contractor.

“I am pretty sure there will be no way back after the crisis. Sending papers all around the world with couriers does not make sense anymore.”

— Christophe Leroy, operations director, Stantec

Leroy said he has seen the volume of short-term work being offered by the commission’s development arm, DEVCO, drop by about a third this month, and he expects the same or worse for April.

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If offers for work in areas such as macroeconomic analysis and public finance management only pick up again once the situation returns to normal, Leroy warned, the lag between when a project is announced, assigned, and carried out could mean months of avoidable delays.

To avert this, Leroy said that “everyone in the industry would encourage the commission to launch as many tenders as they can now.” A clause could be added to stipulate that projects will be carried out only once it is feasible to do so, he suggested. In the meantime consultancies could keep their full-time staff — and perhaps some casuals — busy working on bids. “People are at home, and in many consultancies you have quite a large proportion of the team who are procurement people, marketing people, preparing offers,” Leroy said.

An EU official told Devex that DEVCO’s calls for tender are “the result of a programming exercise” and “certain deadlines cannot be reduced.” However, the official said DEVCO would do its best not to delay or stop procedures in progress or about to be launched.

“To this end, it has just been decided to allow the submission of offers and invoices in electronic format — also in consideration of the current teleworking arrangements,” the official added.

FEACO, the European Federation of Management Consultancies Associations, and EFCA, the European Federation of Engineering Consultancy Associations, wrote to the commission Monday evening, however, advocating for all procedures to be made digital during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Under these conditions, the traditional EU procurement process, for both Expression of Interests and Bids, requesting that documents are printed, signed and sent in original form cannot be sustained,” wrote Ines Ferguson, EFCA chair, and Didier Wynrocx, head of the FEACO procurement committee. The same applies for reports, invoices, and support documents during project implementation, they wrote.

The joint letter urges the commission to allow all paperwork to be sent electronically with technical tools to ensure the confidentiality of financial offers and receipt of documents.

Wynrocx welcomed the commission’s decision to pilot a new online system, OPSYS, under the 2018 SIEA framework contract. But he said that only covers a fraction of total procurement and is difficult to roll out further at the moment.

“To be able to work with OPSYS, you need to be registered. You need a special number. It takes a long time to get it. It’s complicated. [It needs] a lot of paperwork and documents. And considering the current circumstances, I’m sure it will be really impossible to get those documents,” Wynrocx told Devex. “So, OPSYS — I don’t think it’s a solution. I think [the commission] needs to find a temporary solution and then, of course, to continue to work on the longer term on the e-procurement system.”

Leroy predicts that the EU’s digital work arrangements, forged to deal with the coronavirus lockdown, are here to stay.

“I am pretty sure there will be no way back after the crisis,” he said. “Sending papers all around the world with couriers does not make sense anymore, and many donors have already moved to full digital.”

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About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.