Mystery Shopper service extends its reach in new Cabinet Office initiative

Now here’s a good idea, and one I’m sure I suggested back in the mists of time when I worked as a consultant for the late lamented Office of Government Commerce, back when Bill Crothers was just a humble Accenture partner, scraping a living from the struggling consulting business...

The UK government's  ‘Mystery Shopper’ service (the group that used to be the 'supplier feedback service') on Cabinet Office is extending its remit. Rather than just waiting for people to contact them about problems concerning public procurement matters, they are going to get on the front foot, be proactive and start carrying out spot checks on procurement processes. There’s a welcome focus too on how processes look and feel to smaller bidders and potential bidders.

“The objective is to raise the commercial capability of contracting authorities through their adoption of good procurement policy and practice and ensuring that public procurements do not impose unnecessary barriers to small businesses when bidding for public contracts”.

The results of spot checks will be published on GOV.UK as well, just like the Mystery Shopper cases. And interestingly, this isn’t just central government, or central government plus agencies and non-departmental public bodies; it is ALL contracting authorities including the wider public sector.

Spot checks will be undertaken by “examining procurement documents, usually online” – it is not clear how the victims will be selected however. Perhaps looking at the history of complaints might help indentify some worthwhile candidates? I would tend to use that approach, but perhaps combine it with some purely random selection of authorities just to keep everyone on their toes!

Now there are one or two notes of caution. Clearly, Cabinet Office can only look at a tiny proportion of the procurement exercises. But just by introducing the possibility that procurement exercises might be examined, it might make authorities think harder about their processes. And the effectiveness of the scheme does depend on the competence of the Cabinet Office staff who will undertake it. We will see some tension there if contracting authorities feel they are being unfairly criticised by people who aren’t truly expert, for instance.

But, all in all, a very worthwhile initiative – well done Cabinet Office.

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