By Neil Walbran
The best way to share learning around the development of Converge, a consortium established that works across Greater Manchester, is to describe the journey we’ve been on. I’ve decided to document our journey using a timeline. I hope this is sufficient to bring clarity to the process, opens a dialogue between my colleagues. I look forward to any response with enthusiasm.
The City Region of Greater Manchester comprises of ten Boroughs, or ‘localities’. Each has a local authority (LA) and primary care trust (PCT). There are an estimated 6,500 voluntary sector organisations providing health and wellbeing services in the City Region. Greater Manchester has one of the lowest life expectancies in the country.
Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation (GMCVO) received investment from the local NHS and was tasked with opening up the contracting market to the voluntary sector. As the lead on health I was investigating the various means to achieve this bearing in mind the market environment and sector offer. At this point the idea of a consortium began to take shape:
2009: NAVCA approached me at GMCVO asking to pilot the Voluntary Action Sheffield ‘Consortium Toolkit’ training. We were introduced to the Sheffield Wellbeing Consortium, its setup, a ‘super-provider’ model with a hub-and-spoke configuration. The model appealed to us because it:
- facilitated market entry for smaller organisations,
- provided the capacity to include a large number of organisations
- mitigated risk and managed quality well
Having been warned by the NAVCA trainer: “Never set up a consortium if someone directs you to do so”; I organised a scoping workshop in order to gauge local sector opinion on setting up a super-provider consortium for Greater Manchester. The response was 100% positive so I commenced work on establishing one. I called for volunteers from interested organisations to form a working group and produce the business case for the consortium. This was facilitated by an experienced consultant and involved intensive work over three months.
2010: The working group finalised the business case for the consortium including:
- a business plan
- membership prospectus
- clear application process
- a cash-flow forecast
These documents were to be used to make a bid for loan/grant finance for the hub’s operating costs. I’d already met with a representative from Social Investment Business to discuss investment options and the Social Enterprise Investment Fund was chosen as the ‘best-fit’ source of funding.
We launched the consortium early in 2010 with a call for members. For practitioners, the benefits of free, risk-averse membership were pitched as:
- win more public sector contracts
- free your organisation up from the admin requirements of contracting
- work more closely with like-minded organisations
The founder directors were invited and appointed onto the shadow board and these comprised of chief officers of voluntary sector frontline organisations and local infrastructure as well as strategic representatives from the NHS and commissioners.
We sent a brief for the Memorandum and Articles of Association to a firm of solicitors. Over the next few months we were sent versions which we weren’t happy with and finally received the finished product in October. The consortium was incorporated in October 2010.
At this stage the cuts began to bite and the massive restructuring of health and social care began. Social Investment Business closed down its application process before the consortium could secure a loan. Since then no contracts have been put out to tender and this has been the situation since then.
2011: The voluntary sector market began to polarise in size/scale in Greater Manchester with a loss of medium-sized organisations. Larger organisations survived on reserves or were formed through mergers. Smaller organisations survived on the usual small grants and donor support.
At this stage work between the hub and the shadow board became quite intensive. With support from GMCVO and the shadow board we developed a whole tranche of policies, protocols and other operating requirements to support the risk and quality management of the consortium. The application process had a greater degree of rigour incorporated into it to ensure procurement compliance.
Through dialogue with local infrastructure Chief Officers it was agreed that the relationship between the consortium and local bidding needed to be tightened up. I developed a protocol for local bidding which met with approval from all stakeholders. This protocol came into effect when the consortium bid for a Salford contract. Unfortunately the consortium was unsuccessful because we lacked one element of provision in our provider base.
In a move to increase the consortium’s contracting viability, the shadow board broadened the consortium’s remit from ‘health and wellbeing’ to ‘wellbeing’ in its broader context. A more diverse range of organisations were then targeted for recruitment.
There was a need to refresh the business plan and develop a marketing strategy and plan, so with the invaluable help of a volunteer (whose background lay in NHS commissioning) I started work on this.
2012: Another intensive period of work turning around a branding process, business planning, organising an Inaugural General Meeting and recruiting a new board.
At the same time it became necessary to create supply chains or ‘care service structures’ within the consortium. This came in response to a Greater Manchester-wide initiative: Whole Place Community Budget Initiative which, very briefly, is about public service reform and offers the potential to bid for decommissioned services.
Information was collected on what services members and supplier could deliver. Whether they were large scale or small scale, we need to know what they were willing to provide within these care service structures, how those services could complement each other and how they might collaborate.
The consortium had its Inaugural General Meeting and got its new branding, Converge. The shadow board stepped down and the new board was elected from the consortium’s membership.
A Greater Manchester-sized contract was bid for. Converge was again unsuccessful due to lack of provision from its provider base.
Large scale public service reform continues in Greater Manchester.
Reflection & review
First of all I would say that developing a consortium is mainly about managing relationships and that not everything can be backed up by policy and protocol.
One of the main lessons learned is that a toolkit developed in an area with one PCT and one local authority doesn’t work in an area where this is increased tenfold. A more complex tailored approach is required. Before adopting a toolkit – if at all – there needs to be an assessment of its local application.
When Social Investment Business closed its application process it felt like work and progress had been stymied tremendously. I’ve observed since then, however, that a number of consortia which secured loan finance are facing tremendous difficulty in repaying due to the lack of available contracts to bid for. The delay in incorporation appears therefore to have been a blessing in disguise as this precluded Converge from proceeding with an application which could have carried a large degree of hidden risk.
The relationship with local voluntary sector infrastructure organisations (CVS’) has required tact and diplomacy in a climate of uncertainty and upheaval. Although there have been remonstrations from some of its member organisations regarding the protocol on local bidding which Converge adopted (i.e. it won’t bid without local sanction) this has proven to be the best course of action. Where other consortia have bid locally without sanction, this has often resulted in bad feeling, loss of trust and in extreme cases, loss of members. If Converge were to lose its members it would lose its viability and risk failure.
Although vexing, the lack of forthcoming contracts has provided two advantages to Converge:
- It has provided the consortium with the luxury of time in which to build up its membership, fine tune its business case and develop its governance arrangements.
- It has enabled the hub staff to share learning and best practice in new territory with the wider voluntary sector around consortium development.
Converge has failed in both its bids so far due to an inadequate provider-base. This would be addressed by securing enough member organisations to cover all expected eventualities. One of the consistent issues facing Converge has been striking the correct balance between membership and quality: the higher the quality threshold, the lower the potential membership and vice versa. In establishing the initial threshold two years ago, we drew upon a baseline NHS requirement. This has been modified on an ongoing basis as the internal discussion around quality/membership progressed.
For example: it has been suggested that lowering the threshold and therefore increasing the membership would be a solution to expanding the provider base, although perhaps a better way round this would be to maintain the threshold as it is, promote Converge more actively and drive home to the potential members the importance of joining up.
Forming the supply chains was an eye-opener, highlighting an unexpected challenge of collaborative working in the voluntary sector Most of the groups there were happy to work together but there was clearly some tension between the older charities and the newer social enterprises around their values-base such as relief vs empowerment. I expect we’ll see more of this ‘ethos conflict’ before long. Collaboration is most likely the next big issue we need to grapple with at Converge.
Do you think you’d gain a local mandate if you were to ask your sector about setting one of these up?
How much rigour would you introduce into your membership criteria and what form might it take?
How would you manage conflict between member organisations?
What control measures might you want to put in place to ensure subsidiarity?