By Linda Piirto
Senior Advisor, Responsible Business Conduct, Ministry for Economic Affairs and Employment, Finland
Some years ago I was sitting in a small conference room in Brussels with a bunch of European colleagues – public procurement specialists and responsible business conduct enthusiasts – to hear how social aspects could be taken into account in public procurement. Unfortunately the message we heard wasn’t that encouraging: I got the impression that procurement units (and us representing the awareness-raising wing) weren’t encouraged to explore the topic since it was deemed too difficult.
I left that non-workshop feeling baffled, but not discouraged. For us Finns the option of not doing anything wasn’t really an option: there were already social expectations that public procurement should be responsible, both environmentally and socially. Once a strong expectation exists, we tend to think it’s better to explore how it could be executed in practice and provide guidance, rather than wait for “innovative” ways to interpret the procurement legislation to emerge in bulk.
We started off by producing materials on how to set responsibility requirements for supply chains, with the help of our Swedish colleagues. After this exercise, we got a message from the top asking whether there was something more we could do to promote socially responsible public procurement. Then we came up with the idea to write a comprehensive guide, where we would describe how social criteria can be taken into account at different stages of the procurement process. With this guidance we also wanted to highlight the fact that the possibilities we presented are real and feasible, so with some digging we found practical examples from pioneering Finnish procurement units who had actually already had a go at these.
Finnish procurement units have, for example, included contract clauses on compliance with labour rights and human rights during the contract period; used a service planner to consult customers in the planning phase of the procurement to foster participatory involvement; and set an obligation for a tenderer to recruit individuals with partial work ability or long-term unemployed workers.
This first edition of our guidance was published in 2013. In addition to highlighting the possibilities we wanted to challenge the notion of responsibility in public procurement as some kind of an afterthought or an add-on. If taking social aspects into account in public procurement is deemed desirable, procurement processes, their guidelines and the political strategies behind these, should voice that out. Without these enabling documents procurement units can be left with too little leeway and support they need in order to proceed with social responsibility.
This year we reached a new milestone when we published a revised version of the guidance, as part of our national implementation the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The revised guidance offers new possibilities and requirements set by the new procurement legislation. For example there are new mandatory exclusion criteria, which include certain economic and labour offences, trafficking in human beings, and participation in the activities of an organised criminal group.
What has been especially heart-warming this time around is that we have received much more international interest than before – maybe it’s because our international networks have grown wider or maybe now there are wider expectations for practical solutions for example to integrate human rights issues into public procurement, as shown by the prominent work done by the International Learning Lab on Public Procurement and Human Rights. Either way, we hope that our guidance helps to move the agenda further.
– Guide to socially responsible public procurement (guidance in English): http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-327-285-9
– Handledning till socialt ansvarsfull upphandling (guidance in Swedish): http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-327-286-6
– Opas sosiaalisesti vastuullisiin julkisiin hankintoihin (guidance in Finnish): http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-327-264-4