Consortia – should you do it?

Fiona Sheil was responsible for co-ordinating NCVO’s programme of seminars, training and advice work on public service commissioning and procurement. Fiona left NCVO in October 2013 but we have retained her blog posts for reference.

The drawback of talking to organisations a lot is I forget to communicate online. A blog is well overdue.

One of the things most discussed has been consortia. Specifically, organisations want to ask me how they do it (the process, the cost, how to get a suitable advisor). But that stuff is just project management: laborious steps in the name of creating a new structure.

What’s interesting from my perspective is what lies behind all this: why do they want to collaborate? What I notice asking this – and this isn’t intended to be a disservice to those organisations – is that the majority of organisations haven’t really answered this themselves.

People tend to consider it for a mixed bag of reasons, high on the list being

  • To have a chance to bid for contracts at increasing scale
  • To respond to hints and shoves from commissioners
  • Because someone mentioned it in the supermarket

Ok, so the last one I made up – but it carries a grain of truth. Because ‘consortia’ has been sold to us by hearsay and presumption. It’s touted vaguely as a solution to a nameless problem. We’re told policy makers like it, funders and commissioners like it: but we don’t know the problem it’s meant to solve.

The Three Golden Questions

But that is exactly what we need to pinpoint.

First: ask yourself what problem would a consortia address.

The second golden question to probe is whether the problem that’s driving you is one of response to the external environment, or generated internally to promote change.

  • Are you for example, responding to external cuts or changes in contract scale so you’re trying to widen your options;
  • Or does your Board think greater collaboration will help drive up quality and improve user’s movement between organisations.

You need to be asking how much control you have over these drivers – and are they forced upon you, or positive steps you’re choosing to take? Looking at this will provide an answer to the final golden question:

How sustainable and suitable are these drivers?

Developing consortia is a complex and expensive business – something no one should undertake lightly. And it’s also hugely important at this time that organisations keep checking exactly what is driving their decision making. The public services environment is difficult and complex. We’ve seen a lot of organisations make a lot of bad choices. Make sure developing a consortium isn’t another one.

When makes a good time then?

These questions will give you a clear picture of the risks and opportunities that are pushing and pulling you towards the consortia option. Knowing this – and looking at how sustainable these drivers are in the future, will take you up to the point of being ready to speak to partner organsiations.

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