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Visionary public services: a how-to commissioning guide

Photo credit Nick Page.

NEF’s approach to commissioning provides a framework, a set of principles and practical guidance to re-assess how services are currently provided. It can help to re-focus services on the outcomes that really matter to those who are intended to benefit from them.  The practical guide sets out the core ideas and how to put them  into practice.

We run group training on commissioning for outcomes and co-production

The following is an edited version of a blog that appears in full on the NEF website:

Visionary public services: a how-to guide

June 16, 2014 // BY: JULIA SLAY

We all want public services that positively transform our society, rather than simply responding to needs. But as the cuts bite, what can local authorities do to keep that ambition alive?

What is commissioning?

Commissioning describes a huge range of activities in government. It is increasingly used inter-changeably with procurement and as a proxy for the competitive outsourcing of public services to the private and charitable sector. At NEF we understand commissioning broadly as the process of planning and using government resources and influence to provide local support and services – from leisure centres and community groups to care for the elderly.

Our approach

The result of almost a decade’s work with local government and councils, the guide draws together an approach to designing and commissioning public services in a way that: Promotes positive social, economic and environmental outcomes (or the ‘triple bottom line’) by focusing on the changes that result from activities, rather than targets or outputs; Promotes wellbeing among citizens, and; Embraces co-production – where councils and service providers design and deliver services in partnership with the people who use them, creating new relationships that strengthen democracy and accountability. NEFs commissioning model sets out to maximise the impact of every pound a local authority spends and every relationship it forms. It changes the focus of local government from a race to the bottom on costs, to a pro-active investor in long term social, economic and environmental progress.

NEF’s approach in action: young offending in Lambeth

A recent pilot project in Lambeth’s Youth Offending Service gives a good introduction to how the approach works in reality. Here, commissioners worked with a group of young offenders to commission a service to meet two important outcomes for young people engaged with substance misuse: confidence and self-esteem. The starting point for commissioners was to understand and use the insight of young offenders, drawn from their experience of services, to improve what was commissioned, and how it was commissioned.  The tender asked providers to show how they would co-produce an activity or service with young people to achieve the two outcomes. They were also asked to show how they would promote economic and environmental outcomes across the borough – a change to the procurement documentation designed to push providers to consider their role in the local economy, and their impact on the environment. Young people led the decision-making process to select the winning bid, selected for the leadership roles it created for young people involved in the programme.

Quality over cost

Commissioning has come under strong criticism in recent years. As more and more contracts are awarded to the biggest outsourcing firms, such as G4S and Serco, the fear is that shrinking public resources are being increasingly siphoned off in the form of shareholder profits and executive pay. The trend is also seen as a way of pushing austerity measures on to service providers, eroding staff wages and the quality of services. Take the social care sector, where decreasing budgets, rising demand and competitive tendering is leading to a ‘minutes and seconds’ approach to care. Care providers are forced to compete on the basis of doing more with less, driving a race to bottom on wages and conditions for frontline staff and ultimately resulting in poorer standards of care for the elderly.  Equally damning criticisms have been raised against commissioners of criminal justice and employment programmes. It’s clear that in cases like these the cost of services is being confused with their value. This is one of the key mistakes NEF’s commissioning approach sets out to avoid by privileging quality over cost when awarding contracts.