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Procurement in a nutshell – the Mystery Shopper scheme

In this Procurement in a Nutshell we will be looking at the Mystery Shopper scheme that provides a course for suppliers to voice concerns about public procurement practice.

Mystery Shopper results are published here.

What’s new?

The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) has been publishing Mystery Shopper scheme results every fortnight since 2011. With four years of Mystery Shopper results, progress can now be checked and trends identified over the course of the scheme. On 26 May 2015, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 (SBEE) gave statutory power to the Mystery Shopper scheme in its ability to carry out procurement investigations.


  • The Mystery Shopper scheme was established as a tool for suppliers to voice concerns over poor procurement practice in the public sector.
  • Small and Medium Enterprises have been noted in particular as making use of the scheme.
  • Carried out by the Crown Commercial Service on behalf of the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
  • Provides a clear, direct and non-legal route for suppliers to make complaints within 2 years of the poor procurement practice experience.

Central Government departments and the public sector in general (local authorities, NHS) are covered by the scheme. Matters raised are aimed to be completed in 2 months for Central Government referrals and 3 months for issues in the wider public sector.


The Crown Commercial Service can:

  • Issue instructions to the contracting authority or prime contractor on how to remedy the specific problem for central government issues.
  • Issue a set of recommendations to help the central government body avoid similar issues in the future.
  • Decide whether to work with a lead authority to produce recommendations for the contracting authority that is the focus of the feedback.
  • Contact contracting authorities directly and keep lead authorities aware of the concerns raised.
  • Publish the outcome of cases on the Crown Commercial Service website and through social media, only the contracting authority involved in the issue will be named.
  • Raise serious or persistent supply chain issues with the Crown Representative in addition to the CCS investigations.
  • Issue a formal statutory notice under s.40 of the SBEE obliging the contracting authority to comply.

Contracting authorities are then obliged to:

  • Give reasonable assistance to Mystery Shopper with its investigation; and
  • Comply with the formal notice for information within 30 calendar days of the issue.

However, Mystery Shopper does not have the power to suspend or delay the awarding of a contract by a contracting authority.


The Crown Commercial Service will not intervene:

  • In disputes between a supplier and authority that is already subject to formal proceedings, administrative or legal.
  • In disputes between a subcontractor and a prime contractor working with a contracting authority that is already subject to formal proceedings, administrative or legal.
  • If an ombudsman or other regulatory body will be, or have been involved.
  • Where it concerns a devolved administration of Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales.
  • If the procurement concluded 2 years prior to the CCS becoming contacted.


Mystery Shopper has identified trends in procurement over the duration of the scheme.

Some of the higher level issues experienced by suppliers can be broken down in to following issues:

  • Issues with the procurement process (53% of sampled cases)
  • Issues with the bureaucracy of the whole process (15%)
  • Issues with procurement strategy (11%)
  • Issues with contract management (9%)
  • General undefinable issues (13%)

The Mystery Shopper has also revealed a large amount of dissatisfaction with Pre-Qualification Questionnaires used to assess a supplier’s financial capacity to perform a contract.

Why is it important?

Mystery Shopper can identify poor procurement practice and gives suppliers another avenue to express dissatisfaction with a contracting authority.

The results published can identify common areas of concern that both contracting authorities and suppliers can work towards improving without the need for legal or internal dispute or complaints procedures.

Contracting authorities are also obliged to supply information to the CCS under this scheme.

How can I find out more?

If you have any queries on the issues raised or on any aspect of procurement, please contact us via our procurement hotline on 0191 204 4464.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

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