Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Commissioning. Time for change.

We have just published a report on real life commissioning as seen by third sector bodies. Some of the tales are sad, some ludicrous.

So one local council requires charities to submit handwritten contract applications (I don't think they actually require quill pens as well!). Another is so badly informed it is not aware of a service it has itself commissioned. These examples are based on submissions from members, and we will use for discussions on commissioning with local and central government representatives.

The document contains evidence of local authorities demanding sole authority to dismiss sector service providers’ staff members and carrying out "reverse auctions" in which contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, regardless of quality. This is a practice that will almost certainly fall foul of the new Social Value Act. There are also examples of public sector commissioners cutting project budgets by 25 per cent for services where the numbers of beneficiaries have risen by almost 50 per cent. And without consultation as to how that might affect quality of service provided.

It is clear from our evidence that Commissioning processes are often opaque from the point of view of providers, leading to suspicions of favouritism and preferential treatment for well-connected providers, even when that might not be the case. Some local authorities take little or no interest in monitoring smaller services post-tender, or providing any feedback to providers. On one recent occasion, an ACEVO member’s organisation, which had been providing a service for many years, spoke to local commissioners who were not even aware the service existed.

This is all a far cry from some of the excellent commissioning practice we know does exist, and there are many examples of from our work with commissioning bodies around the country. For example, Gateshead Local Authority went to significant lengths to consult with its local voluntary sector about the shape of a Family Support Contract, prior to the contract going live. The authority held a number of Joint Service Planning Sessions with the voluntary sector in order to inform the service specification at pre-commissioning stage.

Another example is in Norfolk where the local authority went to significant lengths to engage its local voluntary sector in an exercise to design its Local Healthwatch Service. The council were adamant that the Healthwatch wouldn't (as has happened in some areas) be contracted 'out of borough'. Such enlightened approaches, as are being driven by ACEVO Solutions, do much to ensure that the eventual service commissioned is a better one, as well as learning most from the voluntary sector's involvement.

Why, we wonder, can't such best practice become more embedded? There are enough examples of good practice out there, that there is really no excuse for much commissioning practice still being lodged somewhere in the dark ages. Come on Commissioners! You can do better.

To find out more about ACEVO Solution's work to support good commissioning please contact John.gillespie@acevo.org.uk

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