The Cabinet Office Mystery Shopper fights the good procurement fight

The UK's  Cabinet Office has published a report on the last three years of the "Mystery Shopper" service, which enables firms (suppliers and prospective suppliers) to complain about UK public sector procurement practices. I'm sure Francis Maude, the "Minister for Procurement", would acknowledge that the successful initiative was built on the previous government's “supplier feedback service”, but to be fair, he and his government CPOs have taken it forward and extended its remit successfully. The latest innovation is the introduction of spot checks, which will see the service taking a close look at various public procurement projects whilst they are being undertaken.

The latest report is dated February 2014, but appears to have just been published, which seems odd. Has it been awaiting sign-off for months? Anyway, the "service has become increasingly busy with almost as many cases received in 2013 as received in the previous two years" - a sign of success for sure. And the report has some interesting content, in particular identifying how the nature and type of issues has changed over the three years.

For instance, the proportion of issues raised around procurement process generally declined through 2013, but complaints around the pre-qualification element of the process took a higher percentage of that category. Unreasonable use of financial appraisal or turnover limits was a frequent complaint, and a lack of clarity around why PQQs were so complex.

Other areas of note included issues around use of frameworks - and actually you can see one of the fundamental challenges for the service here. There were complaints from firms who are on frameworks, but then find contracting authorities aren't using those frameworks. That upsets the firms who may have invested a lot in getting listed.

But then we get suppliers who don't get onto key frameworks complaining they are excluded and that frameworks favour larger firms. Another common issue is not allowing enough time for responses to mini-competitions (call-offs) from frameworks, which favours larger firms, or buyers accepting pro bono bids (the territory again of the larger firms).

The service has also received complaints around prompt payment . "The majority of issues falling below the first tier were payment issues. Suppliers have contacted the scheme regarding average payment days increasing or where payment has not been made at all. We draw the attention of contracting authorities to the advice available on the Cabinet Office website regarding prompt payment". We really need to sort out primes contractors who behave like this. A day in the public stocks for their CEOs and CFOs – that should sort it out. There's an idea for Bill Crothers.

Other issues with increasing focus for the Mystery Shoppers included onerous demands for security clearance of staff; questions around use of frameworks for schools IT buying; and complaints from incumbents about being excluded from tendering opportunities.

All in all, the report is worth reading for anyone in public procurement, as are the regular updates on the cases the service handle. And there is also a new Twitter account, which we will be following with great interest of course!

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