The words ‘European directive’ are usually enough to make all but the most dedicated policy observer yawn and fall asleep. While most of us were busy preparing for Christmas, though, the European Commission published something different which should make us sit up and take notice. The public procurement reform proposals have the potential to create a defining moment in the sector’s role in public service delivery.
The proposals include a dedicated chapter on social services procurement. This would mean that, for the first time, the unique nature of these services (that the sector provides so well) would be recognised in the law governing the award of such contracts. This has to be a tremendous victory if it puts and end to absurd attempts to use the same process to select who will provide support or care to some of the most vulnerable in society as for choosing who will supply our councils with pens and pencils.
Even more exciting is the proposal that public purchasers be empowered to use their spending power ‘in pursuit of common societal goals’. This seems so obvious – in the midst of rising unemployment, financial disparity and environmental challenges – that many will be amazed that this hasn’t been permitted to date. Yet the reality is that the European law has been so complex that much of the public sector has shied away from placing significant emphasis on the broader benefits that its chosen service provider might offer.
The proposals contain other reforms that could further strengthen the sector’s hand: an apparent obligation for public authorities to explain why they are unable to break a large contract into smaller units leaves the door open for the sector to access even more opportunities to improve public services. Even as one of the largest charities, we at the Salvation Army have witnessed numerous contracts too large for even us to consider, despite knowing that we could offer significant wider benefits.
Crucially, though, this potential will only be fulfilled if the European Parliament gets it right. We firmly believe that social benefit will only play a meaningful role if this is placed above short term financial considerations. The proposals provide scope to prohibit the choice of social services providers being made solely on cost grounds. This is currently, though, only an optional extra for national governments to use if they see fit. We are strongly advocating that this should be a mandatory requirement.
The proposals bring within reach a framework in which the third sector could become the default provider of choice for many public services. 2012 could be a defining year. We will be closely following and engaging with the European debate on these proposals. We urge the rest of the sector to do the same.
Robin Barton is Head of Business Development & Tendering at The Salvation Army