Mystery Shopping for Accessible Transport

Insight Project Case study

The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aimed to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods. 

The Civic Innovation Toolkit documents 29 such methods that had never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue. 

This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work. 



Research has shown that poor access to transport is a particular barrier to social inclusion for older people and people with disabilities in Northern Ireland. The Insight Project set out to test the lived experience of people with disabilities and bring these insights to bear on the development of public transport policy and services.

The Project

The project was delivered by the Cedar Foundation, working in collaboration with Age Sector Platform. These organisations know, from their own research and experience, that older people and people with disabilities often find it difficult to get the transport they need, when they need it. People often have to book accessible transport in advance, preventing spontaneous or unplanned travel; they face limited accessible seating, and no seating available for carers or companions; there is a lack of disability awareness among transportation staff and an overall lack of confidence in using public transport.

The project set out to use four methods of engagement:

  • Citizen Report Cards and Mystery Shopping, to test the accessibility, quality and efficiency of public transport, and
  • Forum Theatre and Pop Up Democracy, to bring together and articulate the insights gained from using the first two methods, and to bring these insights to the attention of transport decision makers.

Citizen Report Cards – Citizen Report Cards are participatory surveys used to engage citizens in assessing public services such as health, education and transport – particularly where existing data is scarce. They are designed to raise citizen awareness and ultimately bring about reforms in service delivery. 

Mystery Shopping – 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. 

Forum Theatre – Forum theatre (also known as Boal’s Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, or Theatre for Development) uses theatre to achieve social aims, and is often undertaken by socially excluded or disempowered groups. It is an interactive form of theatre that engages the audience in exploring different options for dealing with a problem or issue.

Pop-up Democracy – Pop-up democracy is a term used for temporary, site-specific practices to provide opportunities for increased local political and civic participation (e.g. pop-up shops; activist spaces; circulating libraries). These temporary installations can help build social capital, close to the community they aim to engage. When they no longer serve, they no longer exist.

The citizen report cards, available both online and in hard copy, were used to collect views from a wide range of transport service users. This was the first step in the project. Following analysis of the report card survey, the project then trained service users to carry out a range of mystery shopping activities, including going on a journey they hadn’t done before or contacting transport providers for advice. Over 70 mystery shopping tasks were completed.

The project then worked with a community theatre group to prepare a short skit, drawing on the issues coming out of the mystery shopping. The skit was performed in a number of public venues across Northern Ireland. The original intention had been to then use a pop-up democracy format to take the issues to transport decision makers. For a number of reasons, the project decided that this wasn’t going to be the best way to do this and instead they planned to do some advocacy training for service users, to be followed by a round-table meeting with transport decision makers.

What Worked Well

The citizen report cards were an easy way to engage a large number of people and gather information. People are used to filling out forms and this was helped by having the survey available in both paper and electronic forms. Staff were on hand to support participants to use the tablets for the online version, if they needed it. Doing this across Northern Ireland enabled some geographical mapping as part of the analysis. In total 380 report cards were completed.

Overall, the mystery shopping was a very positive experience for everyone taking part. Participants felt empowered: they were invited to try out new things and go outside of their comfort zone (e.g. travelling to different parts of Northern Ireland). The volunteer training also enabled the project to get a better understanding of people’s own stories and experiences, and the tool also helped to strengthen collaborative working between Cedar Foundation and Age Sector Platform. Over 70 people took part in the mystery shopping.

The Forum Theatre events also went very well, they were well attended, people found them very engaging and humorous and they generated a lot of useful conversation with service users and audiences. 

What Lessons Can Be Learned

It is important to adapt citizen report cards to the needs of the participants. In this project, the form needed to be suitable for people with a range of different disabilities. Having the survey available in both online and hard copy versions was also very useful. It would have been helpful to have had some more qualitative information available to support the report card survey, to help answer participants’ questions. 

It is important to be very clear about the purpose and aspirations of any engagement activity. This is one reason why the volunteer training for the mystery shopping was so useful, as it gave the project team the opportunity to clearly communicate this to participants, so that people knew why they were being asked to take part. Some information was lost in recording the outcomes of mystery shopping, as the format was not flexible enough, so the lesson here is to make sure that the formats being used are fit for purpose.

The Forum Theatre took a lot of planning and in practice the project could have done with more time to plan this.

The project team found it very helpful to speak in advance to other organisations that had used these tools, in order to get practical tips and ideas.

More Information

All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.

The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community Fund) with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.

The Cedar Foundation delivers a range of services throughout Northern Ireland that enable people with disabilities to get the most out of life and to be fully included in their communities.

Age Sector Platform is a membership organisation and represents a voice for older people in Northern Ireland. It is the charity responsible for the Northern Ireland Pensioners Parliament.

For more information about the organisations and the project: