Gian Luigi Albano: Bringing insights from modern auction theory into the realm of "procurement design"

'Who' and 'what' are you?

My name is Gian Luigi Albano, and yes, Gian Luigi is a double first name. I hail from the captivating region of Calabria, known for its natural wonders. Despite the less favorable reputation of the locals, growing up in such a beautiful place has profoundly shaped my aspirations and mindset. My academic journey took me from Pisa for my undergraduate studies to various cities like Milan, Pavia, Louvain-la-Neuve, Brussels, and Toulouse, before landing my first job as an Assistant Professor at University College London in 1999. At that time, I envisioned a lifelong career in academia, but fate had other plans. A chance encounter led me to the world of public procurement, prompting me to make the bold decision to leave my job in London and join the Italian government. Many of my colleagues thought I was taking a leap of faith. 

I often see myself as a unique, maybe weird, blend of a civil servant and an applied researcher and teacher. The truth is, I have an equal passion for both professions, which may explain my double first name…

What are you working on, and why?

As a self-proclaimed "not-so-civil" servant (technically speaking, as my company, CONSIP, is a private entity owned by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance), I am in charge of the supervision, from an economic standpoint, of all framework agreements handled by CONSIP, currently one of the largest Central Purchasing Bodies in the EU. Transitioning from a full-time researcher, I've been on a mission to inject some of the most cutting-edge insights from modern auction theory into the realm of "procurement design". This involves finding the right balance between price and non-price dimensions in competitive tenders, breaking down large framework agreements into smaller parts, and selecting the right scoring rule for award criteria. 

My escapades in public procurement have taken me on intense tours around the globe for the past 18 years, attending conferences, high-level policy-making events, and training courses, not to mention countless formal and informal rendezvous with professionals from diverse backgrounds. This globetrotting experience inspired a book on framework agreements that I co-authored with Caroline Nicholas, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. Our aim was to provide a common conceptual toolbox to procurement practitioners and policy makers working in different corners of the world, because let's face it, practitioners often use different labels for similar techniques, missing out on the chance to learn from each other. 

Being an economist at heart, I hold firm to the belief that there are universally valid forces at play in public procurement markets. I'm convinced that regulations will inevitably evolve towards a larger common set of rules, transcending the basic principles of competition and transparency. My research in public procurement is a product of real-world inspiration. One of my pet projects revolves around exploring the tools that public buyers could and should use to handle quality aspects that can't be explicitly defined in contractual clauses. For instance, how does one measure the palatability of food, the proactiveness of a consultant, or the user-friendliness of a piece of software? These are the conundrums that perhaps don’t keep me up at night, but invade the mental space not yet occupied by burning daily tasks. 

Text continues under picture
'Elasticità', by Umberto Boccioni
Umberto Boccioni, one of the leaders of the Italian Futurist movement, was obsessed with the representation of rapid forward momentum, often with intersecting horses and human figures. Yet the perspective is fractured, as if it were a broken glass. Movement, fragility, speed, strength, and unusual perspectives, each and all capture some essential bits of my personality (no coincidence that I chose it for the cover page of my book on framework agreements!)

Our world seems to be in a continuous state of various crises (environment, COVID19, Ukraine; Israel-Hamas): can you indicate for one (or possibly several) of these crises how this affects your research?

When COVID19 hit Italy in February 2020 the Department for Civil Protection, which oversees virtually any kind of national emergency, entrusted CONSIP with the task of purchasing ventilators and personal protective equipment. The procedures were carried out in (almost) a blink of an eye, but the resulting contracts contained broken promises as the whole supply chain came to a halt almost overnight. Suddenly, we realized how fragile procurement techniques become if global trade does not work properly. It was the most frustrating professional experience of my life. Getting desperate phone calls from colleagues scattered in every corner of our country, listening to sobbing doctors who had to decide which patients to give priority due to the lack of equipment and medical material, all this profoundly affected me as well as all my colleagues at CONSIP. And yet, after 3-4 weeks we were relieved by the defrost of global trade, which made it possible to deliver the first batch of ventilators to some Italian hospitals.

Since then, I have been mulling over the extent to which even a large central purchasing body can rein in the forces in a global procurement world. The answer is: To a very limited extent! Hence, we need to constantly pay attention to the “bigger picture,” comprising international trade, human rights of all workers involved in the global supply chain as well as national security. A fragmented and lean supply chain contributes to just-in-time procurement solutions, but it also makes final users more vulnerable to adverse events. Hence, some “inherently governmental functions, such as national defense call for enhanced reflections and actions to reduce the level of risk under exceptional circumstances. Economists use to say that “there is no free lunch in the economy”, meaning that even the most advantageous arrangements bring about costs. COVID19 confronted us with some underplayed costs of a globalized economic system. 

Which teacher have you not forgotten throughout your studies and why? 

The unwavering guidance of my high-school teachers of Latin and Philosophy, along with my two cello mentors from the Conservatorio, has left an indelible mark on my mind and soul. It has taken me years to fully grasp the profound essence of their teachings, which were woven into diverse subjects. At its core, their message resonates with the imperative of delving deep within ourselves to discern our purpose, the significance of infusing passion into every endeavor, the urgency of expending mental and physical resources without reserve, and the inevitable frustration of daily toil without certainty of its destination (“la beauté du geste” is often more important than the outcome itself). Sometimes, I find myself pondering their words, endeavoring to impart my own interpretation of their profound message through my teaching, striving to inspire others with the same fervor that has ignited my own journey.

Name the book/movie/thinker that impressed you the most, shaped you, would you like to read or see 100 more times and why?

Three books capture one of my obsessions: The role of hope in our lives. “Blindness” by José Saramago, “If This is a Man” by Primo Levi and “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy all minutely describe barely imaginable, utterly inhuman, situations, but also the resilient flicker of hope amidst the despair. We incessantly need hope to overcome staggering tragedies. Hope fuels the battle against seemingly impossible causes, not in a 'donquichotesque' manner, but in a way that imbues life with meaning and serves as an exemplar for others. 

Studying public policies is ultimately a way of nurturing hope in future generations, hope that would nonetheless remain an empty word without coherent and courageous actions.