The last decade has seen a consistent drive from governments of all colours to increase procurement of public services from Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations, accelerated in the last year by Ministry of Justice's Transforming Rehabilitation plans. However, VCSE organisations’ actual experience of commissioning and procurement does not always match the top level policy intentions, so Clinks' Local Development Team is researching the experiences of VCSE organisations involved in commissioning and procurement ‘on the ground’.
I want to share with you our interim findings report and some reflections on an event last week that brought together commissioners and VCSE organisations.
On-the-ground experience of commissioning and procurement
My colleague Louise Clark and I have spent several fascinating hours interviewing Clinks Members about their day-to-day experiences of trying to engage in commissioning. This has filled us with admiration for leaders of VCSE organisations navigating complex procurement processes as well as managing delicate relationships between organisations competing locally and in negotiation with larger potential lead contractors, whilst also advocating for their service users.
We were particularly struck by their positivity and resilience. Of course there was a lot of fear for the future, particularly for those organisations that were waiting to hear on large contracts that made up a lot of their funding. But there was also a pragmatic acceptance that for many organisations funding opportunities lie in procurement, and that the Sector needs to adapt to these changes in order to continue to provide much needed services for their clients.
It should be noted that these organisations weren’t intended to be a representative of the entire VCSE Sector, but a small selection of a local organisations engaged (or seeking to be) in commissioning and procurement.
And what about commissioners?
We wanted to hear from commissioners too, so inspired by a similar event organised last year by South West Forum, Clinks brought together VCSE leaders with commissioners from local authorities, Police and Crime Commissioner offices and probation trusts, as well as officials from the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet Office.
The so-called ‘goldfish bowl’ format of the event involved roundtable discussions of public sector and VCSE Sector participants in turn, observed by the other group. This method proved very successful, and both public and VCSE Sector participants valued the opportunity to listen to their counterparts describing the experience and challenges of procurement and commissioning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a great deal of common ground.
For me personally, one of the most useful insights came from one of the public sector participants describing how many different and often conflicting drivers there are in commissioning. A commissioner may have to balance reducing costs (for example Transforming Rehabilitation has an explicit aim to reduce the unit cost) with the aim of procuring from smaller providers or from the VCSE Sector – and these two aims may be in tension.
A full report of the event’s discussions, produced under Chatham House rules, is being written up and will be circulated via Clinks Light Lunch e-bulletin.
Over to you…
We have produced a discussion paper and report of the interim findings of our interviews so far, in order to seek wider input on the issues. You can download and read the interim report and we’d welcome your comments on any of the findings. Here are some issues and questions to get you started.
- What is your experience? Share your examples of good and bad practice in commissioning.
- Some organisations felt that sub-contractors had a poor relationship with commissioners, what’s your experience? How could the relationship between commissioners and subcontractors be strengthened?
- Many organisations described how communication between local VCSE organisations shut down and relationships were damaged once tendering started. How could the commissioning process be changed to maximise communication and joint working between organisations that are tendering?
- Some interviewees felt the market was being developed ‘in the wrong way’ – i.e. giving advantage to larger organisations. Do you agree? What could create a level playing field for organisations of all sizes?
- Some organisations had experienced their existing service being put out to tender, creating a lot of instability and time taken in bidding. If a service is reviewed and found to be effective, is it always necessary to put it out to competitive tender?