Roundtable with Cabinet Office Ministers (December 2012)

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.

This month the Cabinet Office published a ‘progress update’ on their policies intended to enable the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector to deliver public services. Feedback on this report will be welcomed.

Today they invited VCSE representatives to meet with Cabinet Office Ministers, Francis Maude and Nick Hurd, to discuss developments so far. Representatives included infrastructure like NCVO, ACEVO, SEUK and Clinks, as well as providers like Gingerbread, Catch 22, and St Giles Trust.

Recurring themes in the discussion including the roll-out of the payment by results agenda, the need for consortia to enable competition at scale (a challenge we’ve never really got our heads around) and how on earth do we improve procurement.

National Commissioning Academy

A solution to this final point, already established by the Cabinet Office, is the National Commissioning Academy. Alongside a website (in development, to which NCVO is contributing materials from our own commissioning pages) the Academy provides peer-based workshops for commissioners and their colleagues.

NCVO is supporting delivery of the workshops. Cohorts of roughly twenty commissioners and colleagues attend a series of eight workshops that include:

  • ‘Meet the provider’ days, in which all topics are open to discussion
  • Site visits to discuss how effective their market and services are, and what improvements can be made
  • ‘Peer challenge’ days where they reflect on how their learning will be implemented in practice

Interestingly, commissioners are invited along with 2-3 colleagues so the learning is carried by more than one staff member in an organisation (and this includes procurement and legal colleagues); cohorts are cross-cutting, including representatives from across the public sector commissioning agencies; and every commissioner has to attend with the explicit support of their organisation’s leadership, ensuring their learning will be recognised and supported into practice.

Having been piloted the National Commissioning Academy will launch on 31st January 2013. I’ll send further details from the event.

Mystery Shopper function

It’s very clear Cabinet Office recognise the range of problems in current procurement practice, not least how inflexible and onerous processes can be – and how this limits their ability to secure the best quality of outcome.

To help providers challenge poor procurement practice the Cabinet Office has established a ‘mystery shopper’ function. Providers can use this to make complaints which are then investigated. While this has led to change in process in roughly 70% of reported cases, use by the voluntary sector is very scant.

For more information on the Mystery Shopper service and to join a live webchat on Wednesday 19th December.

Questions Remaining – where are we going with all this?

What was lacking from the report and the discussion itself is still a persuasive narrative and economic argument on three things:

  1. Why the VCSE is invaluable to effective solutions in the welfare state.
  2. What the long term outcomes of the welfare state are, to which we should all be collaborating to achieve.
  3. And the most insightful challenge of the meeting, made by Kathy Evans of Children England: is the state going to be a buyer from the VCSE, or an investor?

Kathy pointed to the children’s home sector, which SEUK have also recently flagged in their excellent report on public services (‘The Shadow State’), as a area of delivery initially led by the ethos and energy of the voluntary sector, but in which the voluntary sector is now only a minor player. Instead the children’s home ‘market’ is dominated by the private sector – and much like the case of Southern Cross – the risk begins to be that not only may standards drop through lack of competition, but these providers become ‘too big to fail’.

However lack of clarity on the role of the VCSE in public service outcomes though isn’t something we can blame government for alone. We also need to take responsibility. We know the current Cabinet includes believers in the rule of free-market competition, and yet our sector has failed to evidence effectively the economic case for VCSE supported entry into this environment. We know there is a financial case for supporting our unique role as innovators, social capital, advocates, drivers of quality, and stable, solvent partners, yet I don’t believe we’ve communicated that in a way to make it irrefutable and to persuade the Treasury and government at all levels. A task for VCSE infrastructrue in 2013?

More on NCVO’s public services policy and support work including our current work on payment by results and TUPE.

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