Commissioners and NCVO members work towards making the world a better place

Last week, NCVO co-delivered a day of the Commissioning Academy, where NCVO members and private-sector providers facilitated roundtable discussions with commissioners from a range of central and local government bodies.

As we would expect, there were discussions about the barriers that prevent good commissioning to take place. These barriers are often caused by lack of expertise among commissioners themselves. But far more often, as we heard at the event, barriers are out of the commissioners’ control or remit. Observing the group, I saw people that really want to do the right thing, but are sometimes stymied by factors beyond their control.

There were several recurring themes that came up during the day, where it was felt that barriers in the commissioning process can lead to poor results:

Social value

Racheal Jones of Knowsley CVS talked about her work with their local council to adopt creative and meaningful social value measurements. There was a strong feeling that social value could be much better understood by all parties involved, and commissioners would welcome template policy frameworks and examples of good social value practice. Some commissioners even perceived social value to have a negative impact on value for money or scope for innovation.

Risk-averse procurement advice

Commissioners are still reporting that their procurement colleagues have a low appetite for risk, and can often block innovation. A session by Peter Ware of Browne Jacobson armed the delegates some knowledge of the law, so they could go back and challenge their procurement people. In particular, Peter discussed the use of grants, and the fact that pre-procurement dialogue with the market is desirable and legal, as long as it is done transparently.

Appropriate placement of risk

This is a thorny issue that should be managed very carefully. Commissioners and providers tended to agree that it is reasonable to delegate risk to a provider, but the risk has to be fairly priced for. What is important is that there is an open and honest discussion of the risks in a contract – ideally commissioner and provider working together – which ensures that all the risks identified have a mitigation strategy, are owned by someone and are priced for. A need was identified to develop commercial skills of commissioners and providers regarding risk management.


Providers often perceive commissioners as the bad guys that don’t understand the community or share their values. Actually, commissioners very often do have a strong knowledge of the local community and want to ensure that high quality services are purchased, yet there are other influences, such as local politics or a requirement to observe agreed ways of doing things that stifle creativity. Commissioners are often not in a position to reveal these behind-the-scenes influences.

Result does not match process

It can be frustrating when what looks like a watertight commissioning process can lead to an undesired outcome. One commissioner described an experience where they put a contract out to tender, and the best tender was written by an organisation that they know has poor employment practices, but they have been unable to facilitate whistleblowing. In this case, it was suggested to refer the organisation to the Care Quality Commission. In other words, the commissioner does not also have to be the regulator.

NCVO and our partner organisations will continue to deliver these learning days and other programmes to support better commissioning, as well as support to voluntary organisations to access contract opportunities.


The Commissioning Academy was established by the Cabinet Office to improve the quality of commissioning, and to give commissioners the knowledge and networks to be more innovative. In 2016, a new partnership that includes NCVO won the central government contract to develop and deliver the Academy.

I’d like to thank NCVO members 3SC, Knowsley CVS, Locality, Music in Detention, Paddington Development Trust, Share Community, Survivors UK, Volunteering Matters and Works4U for supporting the event with senior staff time.

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Lev is an associate consultant to NCVO, and has specialist interest and knowledge in the role of the voluntary sector in public service transformation, partnerships and consortia, charity governance and leadership.

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