Cabinet Office Mystery Shopper progress report – improving public procurement?

We promised to come back to some of the UK public sector procurement announcements that were made just before Christmas.

We’ll start with the Cabinet Office’s “Mystery Shopper service” - a report on the last 18 months was issued recently. It identifies trends rather than getting into many specific examples and certainly doesn’t name names in terms of the bad practice described. However, it is interesting reading nonetheless and does highlight some problem areas.

  • 80 per cent of all cases raised issues with the procurement process, with a number of SMEs concerned about unachievable pre-qualification financial requirements and the lack of early market engagement.
  • In 38 per cent of concerns about the procurement process, SMEs cited lengthy and complex pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) which disadvantage smaller businesses by setting too much emphasis on financial guarantees and requirements.

There were also issues around design and use of Frameworks, particularly complaints from SMEs around being forced into working as sub-contractors. Lack of time to put consortia together was another complaint, as was lack of time given to respond to low value tenders – less than a week in some cases.

Prompt payment issues are also covered – both where the organisation at fault was a public body (usually NHS) and where the problem has been with a Prime Contractor paying its subcontractors.

All in all, this is a very worthwhile initiative and one we thoroughly commend – I’ve personally recommended  that a number of suppliers should use it when they’ve told me of bad experiences with contracting authorities.

But one aspect of the Cabinet Office announcement that is misleading is the claim that this whole initiative was launched in 2011 by the current government. It wasn’t. The “Supplier Feedback Service” was introduced in 2007 by the previous government. Francis Maude re-named it ("Mystery Shopper") in 2011, and its remit has been slightly extended, but it is essentially the same service. Claiming credit for inventing the whole thing seems inappropriate therefore – both past and current governments deserve credit for the good work that is now being done.

I suppose the other critical comment we might make is around what is being done on a systemic nature to reduce the amount of poor practice? Cabinet Office does far less than the old OGC used to in terms of producing guidance and general procurement education, particularly to the wider public sector. Does Bill Crothers have plans as CPO to take on any sort of attempt to improve performance generally? Or will the Mystery Shopper service just pick up the problems as - or sometime after - they happen?

Finally, Sally Collier (Deputy CPO and Government Procurement Policy Supremo) stars in this brief video, encouraging firms to use the service. We understand the Oscar nomination for “Best Actress in a Government Short Film” is imminent.


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