Bidding can be both pressurised and also rewarding for suppliers to the public sector. There are many concerns for suppliers during this time such as completing all the relevant documents to meet the deadline, getting adequate responses from the buyers on the Q&A or that the process is being run fairly. Poor procurement practice by the buyers may go unnoticed under these circumstances and many suppliers are reticent to raise a challenge and risk future contract opportunities. So what happens when you realise there are potential issues? The Mystery Shopper Service offers a solution to this problem.
A Brief Overview
The Mystery Shopper Service aims to tackle any concerns suppliers (particularly SMEs) may have regarding poorly conducted procurement processes which they have been part of on behalf of the suppliers. The service welcomes questions at any stage of the procurement life cycle i.e. pre-procurement activities, formal tendering processes and the management of contracts, including payments to suppliers and sub-contractors.
Suppliers can raise their issues to The Mystery Shopper Service if it matches any of the following criteria:
- It is a procurement conducted by a UK Government Department or an English contracting authority in the wider public sector that has taken place in the last 2 years.
- It highlights endemic poor practice within a contracting authority
- It concerns supply chain issues between prime contractors and sub contractors.
- It shows issues relating to the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012.
Contacting the Mystery Shopper Service
Government suppliers and potential government suppliers can raise concerns anonymously about unfair public sector procurement practice to the service. Suppliers can contact the Mystery Shopper service by emailing MysteryShopper@crowncommercial.gov.uk or telephone 0345 010 3503.
What happens next?
The Mystery Shopper Service aims to provide responses to suppliers within two months for Central Government referrals and three months for matters concerning the wider public sector e.g. The NHS.
During the investigation period, the Crown Commercial service may take the following actions:
- Circulate instructions to the contracting authority on how to remedy the specific problem for central government issues.
- Collaborate with the lead authority to generate solutions for wider sector issues.
- Issue general guidance to all public bodies (for example, through a Procurement Policy Note), or take other forms of action to help reduce the likelihood of similar issues arising in other authorities.
Although there are many forms of actions that the Mystery Service can conduct, suppliers should be reminded that the service does not have the power to require a contracting authority to delay or suspend the awarding of a contract.
The Impact of the Mystery Shopper Service
It has been almost four years since the launch of The Mystery Shopper Service. Since the launch, the service has dealt with over 818 cases and the Cabinet Office is continuously building on its solid performance in finding solutions to issues raised as 4 out of 5 cases have resulted in a positive outcome. The Mystery Shopper service has consistently received positive feedback as the service continues to challenge procurers to be more open and transparent at all stages of the procurement process. The latest figures show that 80% of Mystery Shopper complaints have led to a change in the way public sector organisations procure goods and services now and in the future.
According to the results published in the Mystery Shopper’s trend report from 2012 to 2014, the biggest concern continues to be PQQs. Other areas of concern involve procurement strategy, frameworks, contract management and prompt payment. If you’d like to view the report in further detail, please click here.
Below are the some of the results based on 45 cases investigated by the Mystery Shopper:
- 23 cases resulted in the contracting authorities accepting Cabinet Office recommendations to change future practice and in 11 cases live procurements were adjusted following the Mystery Shopper’s intervention.
- Cabinet Office intervened in a number of live cases and achieved extensions for contract opportunity deadlines and the removal of pre-requisites for certification at bidding stage.
- All public sector organisations accepted Cabinet Office recommendations and either adjusted live procurements or changed the way future procurements are run.
Evidently, the Mystery Shopper service has had a positive impact. The changes mentioned above would not have taken place had it not been for the work carried out by the service. Not only does the service thoroughly investigate suppliers’ issues but it actively seeks solutions to resolve existing procurement problems. It is highly recommended that suppliers should consider submitting their procurement concerns to the service- even in times where a problem cannot be actively solved in response to a current contract opportunity, the issues raised will still be taken on board in one form or another and recommendations would be advised accordingly for future procurement.
However, although the service can be seen as an advantageous tool it must not be relied on as a substitute to legal action. If complex procurement issues arise, legal action should be sought.