New public services measures: what next?

Good news from the government about charities’ involvement in public services has been thin on the ground in recent years.

We all know the problems that charities face in bringing their expertise to public services. Overly complex commissioning processes. Inappropriate transfer of financial risk, including through payment-by-results contracts that mean fees won’t hit a charity’s bank account for many months after they’ve invested in delivery. Or contracts that are simply too large, financially and geographically, for anyone other than the biggest outsourcing companies.

Lloyds Bank Foundation published the most recent analysis of these problems just last week.

All of it means that our public services aren’t as strong as they could be. We know that charities can run caring, efficient and responsive public services. But these barriers mean they’re often squeezed out. NCVO research from earlier this year found the problem is particularly acute for small and medium-sized charities.

So yesterday’s announcement from the government was an encouraging sign that they recognise the issues and are taking a step along the path of tackling them.

New measures are a step in the right direction

The initial package is one of three measures:

  • Developing a ‘public service incubator’ that helps small charities get commissioned. The incubator will enable charities to collaborate with commissioners and develop services that improve the lives of those in need. It will record the barriers that small charities encounter in this process and create guides to overcoming them as well as showcasing positive work.
  • Exploring the development of a commissioning kitemark that will set out a best practice standard. Commissioners will be able to use this standard to show their commitment to small charity-friendly commissioning.
  • Recruiting a voluntary, community and social enterprise crown representative. This role will centrally champion commissioning practices that help small charities contribute effectively to public services. It will also function as an intermediary between government and the voluntary sector.

In a reassuring signal that these commitments will be translated into action, the minister for civil society has asked Sir Martyn Lewis, formerly chair of NCVO, to oversee an implementation group.

These measures may not have much ‘bite’ in themselves, but they are all part of nudging commissioning practice in the right direction. It’s incredibly welcome in itself that the government has acknowledged this problem and shown willingness to start putting things right.

More to be done

The exclusion of charities from public service commissioning is something that NCVO has been working to change.

We’ve worked to highlight these barriers over a number of years. For example, we’ve focused on the difficulties faced by small organisations in the work programme and the transforming rehabilitation programme.

On a practical note, we’ve just updated all our commissioning and procurement pages on our charity advice site, NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit.

And we’re working directly with commissioners through the new Public Service Transformation Academy, which brings together commissioners and front-line providers to help them understand each other’s needs.

In the long term, we’d like to see government consider strengthening the social value act, to ensure that consideration of social value is more than just a tick box exercise. We’ve had some positive progress on our call for transparency in public service contracting, and we hope the government maintains momentum on its reform programme. We’ll be continuing to work with the government, voluntary sector and the new implementation group to help small and medium-sized charities make a bigger difference in public services.

Read more of our blogs on public services.

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Nick Davies Nick was NCVO's public services manager until March 2017. He is also a trustee of the South London Relief in Sickness Fund.

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