The government has carried out three separate investigations after receiving complaints about how contracts were awarded by councils in Blackpool, Manchester and Sefton.

In just 18 months since its launch, over 300 complaints have been investigated nationwide through Mystery Shopper – an initiative that asks businesses to ‘shop’ bad public procurement practice.

In those cases which have been completed, 78 per cent have resulted in positive changes, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude has announced.

The Mystery Shopper’s first progress report shows that 80 percent of all cases raised had issues with the procurement process, with several small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) concerned about unachievable pre-qualification financial requirements and the lack of early market engagement.

In 38 percent of concerns about the procurement process, SMEs cited lengthy and complex pre-qualification questionnaires which disadvantage smaller businesses by setting too much emphasis on financial guarantees and requirements.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said:

“Giving SMEs a chance to have their voices heard when bureaucratic barriers stand in their way can really make a difference to their business, and to the growth of our economy. In just 18 months we’ve seen nearly 80 per cent of investigated cases result in a positive outcome.

“Smaller businesses want to see shorter and easier pre-qualification assessments, and get frustrated when the lack of properly advertising contracts or pre-procurement engagement causes unnecessary delays to the process as a whole.

“Remember, this service is anonymous. It’s in the best interests of SMEs to continue to use our Mystery Shopper service – with their help we’ll be able to drive even further improvements and stamp out bad practice across public sector contracts.”

The Mystery Shopper scheme has made real changes to how public sector procurements are carried out. For example:

Marketing Blackpool/Blackpool Council

A supplier raised concerns that a tender for the staging of a concert had not been advertised.

The Cabinet Office investigated and the Council explained that they put a contract in place at short notice and had not advertised it. Even though leisure and entertainment contracts are not subject to the full rigour of the EU procurement rules, we recommended that they are openly advertised to ensure value for money. The Council committed to putting a framework agreement in place to ensure that this would not happen again.

Manchester City Council

A supplier raised concerns that a pre-qualification questionnaire used for a grounds maintenance contract was inappropriate, both in terms of content, complexity and number of questions, for a contract of this type and size.

The Cabinet Office investigated and the Council committed to implement the use of the Cabinet Office’s standard core pre-qualification questionnaire as a basis for future procurements.

Sefton Borough Council

A supplier had been de-selected during the selection phase of an open procedure on the basis of questions concerning health and safety.

The Cabinet Office investigated and found that the Council had received other concerns from suppliers concerning the scoring of the selection stage and decided to re-run the selection stage.

A short video is available on YouTube of Sally Collier, Government Deputy Chief Procurement Officer, talking about the Cabinet Office Mystery Shopper scheme and why it is so important for suppliers to report bad procurements. http://youtube/wXPX6hCU23Y

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