How public procurement supports the digitalisation of schools

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Schools are not just educational facilities. They have evolved into high-tech hubs with huge demands for hardware and software. In their study the Research Group on Public Procurement from the BFH’s Institute for Public Sector Transformation (IPTS) analyzed, if the procurement process in schools foster competitive bidding, as mandated by law to ensure quality and innovation and if their IT solutions comply with legal requirements for ecological and social sustainability.

Reflecting on my 1990s school days I was surprised when I was asked to conduct a legal study analyzing schools’ procurement of IT services. In my recollection, school was a place where teachers wrote with white chalk on black boards and students had books and paper but no computer (apart from that one computer room that the whole school shared).

Today’s schools contrast sharply with this picture: schools have transformed into high-tech hubs, where students use tablets and laptops from a young age, and traditional blackboards are replaced with interactive versions containing a “smart screens”. Moreover, communication from teacher with parents does not require phone calls, but a communication software that is simple to use but yet guarantees protection of personal data. Finally, this shift towards a digital environment extends widespread use of digital tools in education itself (“EdTech”).

What’s Public Procurement Law got to do with it?

Given this rapid technological evolution towards digitalization, the demand for IT hardware and software in schools has skyrocketed. A frequently overlooked aspect in this context is:  As public entities, schools are paid by taxpayer’s money. Therefore, they need to adhere to public procurement law and cannot just buy the goods or services they want to at their own discretion (at least not when the good or service exceeds a threshold volume of 150’000 CHF). Public procurement laws involve a competitive bidding process. This means, firstly, publishing an official “call for tender” that allow all suppliers to submit an offer and to “win” the contract. Thereby, the call for tenders must be written in a neutral and transparent way, and cannot favor a specific bidder. Secondly, the offers must be evaluated fairly, according to predefined criteria. Secondly, the offers must be evaluated fairly, according to predefined criteria. It is the responsibility of the procuring authority to specify in advance the criteria by which evaluations will be conducted. One criterion that must be considered in this regard is sustainability, a mandate introduced by the 2021 revision of public procurement laws. It was against this backdrop that our research group was tasked to evaluate the current state of IT procurement in schools, identify areas for improvement, and develop policy recommendations.[1]

General lack of a competitive bidding process

Somewhat surprisingly, our initial finding was that making any concrete findings is quite challenging due to a lack of statistical data. While typically, procurement authorities publish their contracts worth CHF 150,000 or more on the official platform, not a lot of publications by schools can be found. One reason could be that IT-procurement by schools are worth less than CHF 150’000, or it might stem from a misunderstanding of public procurement rules or the methods of calculating contract value.

Behind this background suggesting a general lack of a competitive bidding process, our first policy-recommendation was for schools to generally check whether their IT-contracts are above public procurement threshold and accordingly, and whether they need to be published in a competitive bidding process.[2] Therefore, it was important for us to emphasize that adherence to the law is not only crucial for legal compliance, but also because a competitive bidding process will ultimately lead to higher quality, greater innovation,[3] and increased sustainability, thereby enhancing value for money .

Efficiency and Standardization through Cooperation

Research using, our BFH tool for analyzing public procurement data, revealed that among the published contracts, schools frequently procure laptops, tablets, and other multimedia devices like interactive whiteboards. These contracts typically range in value from CHF 350,000 to over CHF 1 million. Additionally, there is a growing demand for educational software and IT support services, often valued at several million francs, which underscores the complexity and maintenance requirements of these IT solutions.

This data, however, was challenging to analyze, due to the fact that responsibility for IT procurement varies regionally: In some cities or municipalities, the local administration (“Gemeindeverwaltung”) is in charge for IT-procurement for schools, while in other areas, it might be the schools themselves, the education authorities, or the digitalization authorities.

Against this background, we recommended that schools collaborate (on a local or cantonal level) in conducting public procurement processes and standardize their IT demands. This approach aims to consolidate purchasing power, lower prices, and reduce administrative efforts for schools.

Sustainability on all three dimensions

When analyzing the published calls for tenders, it became strikingly evident that most schools do not include sustainability as a criterion for awarding IT-contracts. A majority of the calls for tenders emphasized “price” as the most important criterion to award the contract. This suggests that in practice – despite of the new sustainability goal in public procurement laws – those IT-solutions with a cheap purchasing price win IT-contracts. This purchasing price approach neglects the long-term impact on ecological or social sustainability as well as life-cycle-prices (LCC). [4]

In light of these findings, we strongly advocated for incorporating sustainability criteria into procurement processes and not to overemphasis purchasing prices.[5] The environmental impact of IT hardware and software is considerable and varies widely. It is vital to prioritize materials sourced from renewable resources and to ensure that hardware is both reusable and recyclable. Additionally, recognizing the role of electricity consumption in CO2 emissions is essential. Beyond environmental factors, the social implications of public procurement are equally critical. It’s a profound contradiction if schools utilize IT equipment for education that is, paradoxically, produced using child labor, thereby denying those children their fundamental right to education.[6]

A forth dimension: Digital Sustainability?

In this context, our study raised the question whether a contemporary interpretation of the legal term “sustainability” should include “digital sustainability”. This concept suggests that digital goods and services, seen as “public goods”, should be designed to ensure sustainable access to and use of digital knowledge. Although not explicitly covered by the letter of the law, this concept seems particularly relevant in the education sector, where the end-users are children and teenagers, a vulnerable group. This is crucial in primary education, where foundational behaviors are established. Teaching children to use digital tools independently of specific operating systems or products can foster self-sufficiency and prevent future dependencies.[7]

In any case, addressing the issue of sustainability in IT-procurement of schools is not just about compliance; it is about upholding ethical standards in education and procurement.


[1] Rika Koch, Öffentliche Beschaffungen im Bildungssektor – Studie im Auftrag der Fachagentur Educa zur Verortung der (IKT-) Beschaffungen von Schulen nach dem revidierten öffentlichen Beschaffungsrecht, 2023, available here.

[2] see p. 27 of the study, policy recommendation nr. 1

[3] see p. 28 of the study, policy recommendation nr. 9 (“Use the potential for innovation”).

[4] For a discussion of LCC vs. purchasing price, see pp. 23–24 of the study.

[5] See pp. 28 – 29, policy recommendations nr. 6 and nr. 7.

[6] See p.14 and p.29 of the study.

[7] See pp. 14 – 15 of the study.

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AUTHOR: Rika Koch

Prof. Dr. Rika Koch is an assistant professor at the BFH (Institut for Public Sector Transformation) and the Co-Leader of the Research Group on Public Procurement. The RGPP provides practical research and advise for students as well as practitioners. Rika Koch’s research focuses on public procurement at the intersection of sustainability as well as digitalization.

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