Commissioning Dialogues: report urges closer collaboration between commissioners and providers

Ruth Breidenbach-Roe was part of the the Public Services and Partnerships team but has now left NCVO. Her blog posts have been archived here for reference.

‘Business as usual is not an option.’ This is the warning from a recent report by the CBI and NLGN on local authority commissioning.

Commissioning Dialogues calls for a more open and transformative dialogue between local government and public service providers. Increasing demand for services, coupled with decreasing budgets, means that, in order to effectively meet public need, providers and councils must work in partnership to improve commissioning.

By using findings gathered from surveys of both commissioners and providers (in both the voluntary and the private sectors), roundtable discussions and case studies, the report seeks to overcome often stagnant and unproductive arguments between providers and commissioners to identify a new collaborative model for local commissioning.

The report is informed by a number of perspectives and produces several useful recommendations for effective commissioning.

Commissioning should be outcomes-driven:

This was a key theme throughout the report. Commissioning for outcomes can provide local authorities and service users with better value for money. Not being overly prescriptive about how outcomes are achieved allows scope for more innovative services. And, importantly, putting desired outcomes at the heart of the commissioning process helps to ensure that services are aligned to user needs.

Of course, outcomes based commissioning is often impeded by difficulties in defining outcomes. Wider engagement with service users and providers and early discussions about outcomes can help to mitigate these concerns.

Engaging with service users early:

The report recommends that contributions from service users be incorporated early in the commissioning process—crucially in identifying desired outcomes.

If a dialogue between commissioners, service users and potential providers is made possible early on, then the services which are commissioned are more likely to reflect user needs. This process can also foster innovation of design as experiences and views from users can bring fresh insight and approaches to services.

Wider engagement with potential providers:

The report stresses the importance of early engagement:

Reaching out to providers early on helps ensure the commissioning process as a whole works towards outcomes most suited to users’ needs. This is because engagement in a permissive environment, outside of formal procurement processes, can more easily address the overall goals and configuration of relevant services.

However, the research finds that in some cases commissioners consistently ‘call upon informal networks of existing contacts’ rather than seek a wide range of potential providers.  The report calls for commissioners to pursue wider market engagement in advance of procurement (as long as transparency standards are followed) to ensure a wider understanding of what the market has to offer and to discuss need and desired outcomes.

A useful recommendation is that commissioners should endeavour to publish their commissioning intentions early, enabling a wide a range of providers as possible to consider how their services might achieve the council’s outcomes.

When consulting with potential providers, it is essential that commissioners appreciate the capabilities of voluntary sector providers.

Sharing risk:

The report recommends that commissioners should be proactive in identifying risks and in discussing risk mitigation and mechanisms for sharing risk with potential providers from an early stage. It warns against full transfer of risk away from councils, as this leaves providers vulnerable to unexpected shifts in demand and ultimately can impact on the continuity of the service.

One solution for risk sharing identified in the report is that payment for services are phased throughout delivery, with capital being provided for start-up and early running costs. Also, being upfront about the risks involved is important—this is made easier by the spirit of partnership and trust which is fostered by early engagement.

This report presents an important challenge to commissioners and providers: focus on outcomes, pursue wider engagement, and diversify skills. Its emphasis on openness, collaboration and dialogue is refreshing and its research approach is useful in exposing perspectives from both sides.

However, there are some important omissions in the report.

The voluntary sector:

The report could do more to highlight where the voluntary sector can and does add tremendous value to the commissioning process.

For example, the report stresses the importance of service user engagement—voluntary and community groups are often well placed to facilitate this engagement, particularly in diverse and disadvantaged communities, where they are able to articulate the needs and experiences of the vulnerable groups they work closely with.

The report also identifies that many providers have a consistently underdeveloped understanding of localities and rightly recommends that providers should tailor services to specific areas where local variation might improve outcomes. This is something that providers in the voluntary sector tend to be skilled in. Often based within communities, they engage closely with their service users and tailor services according to local need.

The Social Value Act:

The Social Value Act is referenced only in passing—but this is an important piece of legislation which, when implemented later this month, could go some way in transforming commissioning. It means that if a potential provider offers community benefit beyond the contract specification then this should be taken into consideration by the local authority. For voluntary sector organisations, many of which already demonstrate social value in their services, the Act could potentially open up more contracts to them. (More on the Social Value Act can be found on NCVO’s policy pages)

Payment-by-results:

Although the report discusses outcomes-driven commissioning, it does not directly look at payment-by-results—the practice of paying providers for delivering services after agreed results have been achieved—despite this being one of the big political agendas in public services. (More on payment-by-results, and on its implications for the voluntary sector, can be found on NCVO’s public services pages)

So overall, Commissioning Dialogues offers some interesting and useful recommendations and is well worth a read. But the report would benefit from clearer emphasis on the strengths of the voluntary sector in identifying need, representing service users and in providing innovative and bespoke solutions. The voluntary sector is an integral partner in collaborative commissioning: it has the capacity to transform public services, not just deliver them.

Ruth Breidenbach-Roe’s blog

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