Better Way Collaborative Commissioning

Note of a Better Way dinner, 14 November 2018


Summary of key points:

  • The starting point should not be ways to deliver a pre-determined contract more collaboratively but a genuine discussion with partners about what a place is trying to achieve, with the aim of achieving a shared vision.  This should be a whole systems review which also looks at all the resources in a community, not just public sector funds.  This needs time and investment, including investment in training commissioners to see themselves as architects of collaboration.

  • Decisions on how to achieve that vision should start from what would best work for a particular place.  A decision tree would help determine whether grants or competitive tendering or other options are best; and - where competitive tendering still takes place - what criteria should apply eg on local knowledge.

  • The true costs of competitive tendering should be made clear in that decision-making process.  Many voluntary organisations are devoting considerable and very scarce resources to it which could be much better deployed, for example on helping to facilitate citizen participation.

  • Citizen participation is important but needs to be well delivered and properly resourced, especially where communities currently feel disempowered, disenchanted or are divided.

In more detail:

Steve Wyler started by outlining the plans in the Government’s recently published civil society strategy, including a commitment to collaborative commissioning, Citizen Commissioners,  a revival of grant-making, an enhancement of the Social Value Act and a bringing together public and other resources within a community.

Members talked about their experience of some of these things.  In Alison Nabarro’s area, Sutton, Citizens Commissioners already existed and were run by a volunteer centre, and there were also Young Commissioners.  They were brought in as required by commissioners.  On domestic violence, which was a big issue in their area, they were looking at how all the money was currently spent and how it could be used better.  Another model was the process followed for recommissioning the CVS through a competitive process which involved a board including voluntary sector practitioners.  Yet another model of collaboration was Sutton Together, a consortium of 3 organisations for winning advice contracts.

The case for ‘good competition’

We talked about the case for competition in terms of opening up markets, preventing nepotism, providing transparency and ensuring equal opportunities.  There were circumstances in which it was merited. But we also agreed that competition was not always necessary or desirable. Where it was used, the criteria set were very important eg weight being given to local knowledge, as in Hackney on play services.

The costs of competition should be made much clearer

The costs of competitive tendering should be made far clearer to aid decision making on where it was merited and cost-effective.  The Third Sector Research Centre’s longitutinal studies of the voluntary sector have shown just how much voluntary sector bodies have had to invest in the business development function.

Collaborative commissioning

What we thought was really important was not collaborative tendering, where much of the discussion tended to focus, but genuinely collaborative commissioning in which there was an onus to genuinely understand the territory and organisations and individuals were invited to take part in discussing what was required.  Richard Wilson was going to do some work on commissioning and would share it with the group. 

Shared vision and a whole systems approach

‘Never ever start by talking about the money’ should be the maxim.  The development of a shared vision was essential, as in places like Plymouth and Bristol.  Sutton was another example, where they had engaged in collaborative planning, setting up a community development action group.  Time is an essential ingredient, and training may also be useful.  It would be important to start at a very high level ie not just focusing on an existing service but on the whole system and looking at all resources, not just the public sector.

 Training commissioners to encourage collaboration might help redefine their role as the architects of collaboration.  The social sector needs to collaborate more with itself, let alone with others, and this also requires a shift in approach and investment.

 A decision tree for deciding on best delivery options

After this process, a judgement should be made on the actual state of services and what is in the best interests of a place.  Market stewardship should be considered.  A decision-tree might be helpful about which options to pursue in different cases.

 Tools to support collaboration

The collective impact model as used in the West London Zone was one way of creating collective measurement of impact and recognising that no one organisation could achieve an outcome.  Shared data is critical. CVS could play a role in collaboration.  For example, in the past Rotherham CVS had worked with the NHS as a trusted partner and given grants to it that the CVS disburses to smaller groups at its discretion. 

Citizen involvement and participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting had until recently dropped off the agenda and it was said that it had got a bad name.  We discussed some positive examples.  A BLF-funded Ageing Better programme, designed to overcome social isolation, included a participatory budgeting exercise ran by Hackney CVS: 30 expressions of interest from community groups were voted on by a meeting of 500 residents. In Sutton, Citizen Commissioners took part in expert panels.  There had also been a Fairness Commission in Sutton too.  There were also digital models for engaging people.  Experience suggests that much depends on how these ideas are executed but also history matters.  Some communities are more inclined to engage than others.  Participation needs resources but these could be unlocked by not having to invest in staff and staff time to win competitive contracts.