Civic Engagement - Mystery Shopping
Ahead of the launch of our Civic Activism Programme next week, we will be looking at some innovative ways in which people can become more engaged in the processes that run their lives. First up: Mystery Shopping.
One of the most recent examples of civic engagement to take place locally was an initiative lead by the Housing Rights Service (HRS) in 2013.
Mystery Shopping was undertaken in response to the practice of letting agents charging additional upfront fees to would-be applicants for private tenancies.
This tool was initially developed by market research companies in the 1940s to measure the quality of retail services and more recently it is increasingly used by public service providers.
Peter O’Neill, Housing Rights Service, said: “Tenants had been reporting that they had paid fees – as much £100 – for various unspecified administration costs when taking on a new tenancy. HRS decided to investigate this, and in March 2013 a small group of private tenants took part in a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise".
The “mystery shopping” exercise was essentially an undercover survey of 40 NI based lettings agencies, undertaken by tenants, to find out more about the fees and charges that prospective tenants have to pay before they can rent accommodation.
Mr O’Neill continued: “This was the quickest and most effective way for us to investigate the issues raised by our clients. Those taking part had to undergo a short training courses and briefing on the issue and methodology was provided.
"They asked questions about these additional fees such as: did they carry out this practice and, if so, what were the levels of fees; and what exactly where they for?
“Those who undertook the ‘mystery shopping’ were tenants themselves and had personal experience of taking out tenancies and dealing with letting agents and so were able to bring a more nuanced and user-centred focus to the research project.
"They had a personal interest in the issue and therefore were keen to get involved and have been eager to follow the progress of this policy intervention.
"An additional positive outcome of the initiative was that the tenants who participated acquired new skills in carrying out research – training was provided by HRS to support them as part of the process".
The mystery shopping exercise discovered that the majority of letting agents contacted in the survey charged these additional fees. There was quite a wide variation, with charges ranging from £25 to £100, and the average fee being approximately £50.
Through this data gathering the private tenants were able to assist in contributing to a report, which was subsequently published. Since then they have spoken with various civil servants, MLAs and other opinion-formers about the findings of the report, as well as their own experiences as tenants.
Mr O’Neill said that while it is too early to properly analyse who has benefited from this exercise, Trading Standards has now been investigating the issue and the results have been submitted as part of ongoing casework for this process.
The report has been circulated quite widely to people within the housing and consumer protection policy arenas. The mystery shopping helped stimulate that interest, and provided an evidence base for Trading Standards to benchmark their own investigation.
Nice and Simple
So what made this so successful? Mystery shopping is by its nature easy and relatively simple to conduct. Mystery shopping enables services to be tested anonymously. It uses trained volunteers to pose as service users and assess the nature and quality of typical experiences or interactions. Compiling the results of multiple mystery shopper sessions enables on overall picture of the user experience of a specific service.
This particular initiative was described as being both manageable and tightly focused. It was achievable in a relatively short time frame and produced data that was used strategically, soon afterwards, to influence change at operational and policy levels.
HRS intends to use a similar approach to this in investigating issues in the future.