Cabinet Office Supplier Feedback Service publish latest “mystery shopper” report

One good initiative in the UK public procurement space is the Supplier Feedback Service. It was set up in the old Office of Government Commerce by the last Labour Government, but has been re-invigorated under Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude.  I think he genuinely - and rightly -  sees it as a good check on how public bodies are doing, in terms of improving their procurement process and performance.

I’m not sure I like calling it a “mystery shopper” service but it’s good to see it getting a higher profile. Their latest report has just been published here on the Cabinet Office website.

Here are some of the “highlights” (lowlights?) they identified.

  • An SME working on a contract for NHS North West London hospitals which raised concerns about payment made purely on a “contingency fee” basis. This meant payment would take longer than usual and would be made on an erratic basis. As a small business they would not have the resources to wait several months, so contacted Mystery Shopper. The Cabinet Office intervened and the NHS trust has since reviewed its approach and plans to introduce a new fee system where contingency fees play a smaller role.
  • Despite HMRC paying its prime contractor on time, a small business in the supply chain complained that this wasn’t being passed down. Francis Maude wrote to the local MP warning that the case would be referred to Mystery Shopper. The prime contractor subsequently agreed to pay the SME more promptly.
  • A SME sub-contractor complained that money was not being passed on promptly by the prime contractor in a Ministry of Defence contract. The Mystery Shopper team worked with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that overdue payments were made and their processes were strengthened. There is now an improved process in place that will ensure faster payment to defence contractors of all sizes in the future.

There are other very good examples (or should I say poor examples) when you look at the detail of the report. A 38 page PQQ requiring 163 pieces of separate information for a £90K contract was the first that caught my eye. I don’t know whether it’s sad that this is still happening, or good that at least there’s a route for suppliers to bring it to someone’s attention. Perhaps both.

Other cases leave a few questions hanging. A contract was awarded for Out of Hours Emergency Service, awarded on the basis that it had been a 'negotiated procedure without having to advertise a contract'. Cabinet Office decided that was OK. We can’t argue without knowing the details, but that is a procedure that certainly shouldn’t be used often, as it’s fundamentally anti-competitive.

Anyway, it’s well worth a read if you’re involved with / interested in public sector procurement. Keep up the good work, Supplier Feedback Service – and keep raising issues, suppliers!

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