By Louise Mackender de Cari
We've been on a journey in Lancashire. Over the last year, the Greater Together consortium has been developed from an informal partnership into a legal entity, commissioned by the county council to deliver support to vulnerable young people. There has been, and continues to be, considerable learning throughout this journey for both the third sector and the local authority.
Context and history
The Greater Together Consortium has evolved from an existing collaboration between Young Lancashire, the local youth infrastructure and 40 smaller Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) groups. Young Lancashire acted as a managing agent for the groups in their delivery of Commissioned Outcomes Funding from the County Council. A review of this arrangement suggested the formation of an independent structure to facilitate and maximise consortium funding opportunities. Following a series of development days, a working group of 10 VCS representatives unanimously agreed to the establishment of Greater Together as Charitable Company Limited by Guarantee in October 2011.
We have a strong third sector and a history of collaborative working with Lancashire County Council to improve outcomes for children and young people. We decided to keep our Children and Young People's Trust in Lancashire, and it would be fair to say that the strength of this partnership at the county and local district level has ensured that the conversation has kept going between the public sector and the third sector. A strategic representative of the third sector also sits on our Children and Young People's Commissioners Group; this has helped us to understand each other's perspectives.
Policy, references and theory
Commissioners have always welcomed consortium working if it is appropriate to the commission, however the current economic climate and the move from grants to procurement has meant that third sector are perhaps now more willing to join together in these arrangements.
From the commissioners' perspective, we want to ensure that any services commissioned are able to reach local communities, provide excellent value for money and above all improve outcomes for children and young people. As such, when we have commissioned consortia we, and the children and young people we commission on behalf of, have needed reassurance that the organisations within a consortium will be able to deliver on a local level and have the essential local 'grass root' community networks and relationships. After all, that's what the third sector can often offer to a greater extent than the public sector. We have also needed to understand that a consortium will not create a monopoly or another layer of commissioning/ management. This has required conversation and debate between the sectors.
Commissioners are also bound by organisational and statutory procurement regulations and we must be fair and transparent in everything we do. We must also be able to provide our auditors with evidence of how public money has been spent. This can translate into processes that are seen as overly bureaucratic and we need to listen to the sector and be flexible where we can. Commissioners are also looking for different things from different commissions, so we can't say that one delivery method is always more preferable to another. Good commissioning involves partnership working and service specifications should be developed in consultation with service users and partners, including the third sector.
What it means for VCS practitioners
Small VCS organisations have embraced Greater Together as it has offered them the opportunity to be involved in funding programmes much larger than they would be able to bid for on their own. The Hub function within Greater Together also provides many of the administrative tasks such as writing the bid, negotiating contracts, monitoring and evaluation. Greater Together can also act as a “fiscal sponsor” for small and unincorporated organisations who would not be able to hold a contract due to the restrictions of their status and constitution. This leaves the smaller organisations to focus their limited time and capacity on face to face work with young people in their community. For larger organisations, Greater Together has provided different challenges, some have seen it as a threat, whereas others have been happy to be part of collaborative vehicle that joins up provision and offers the opportunity to explore new funding opportunities. Whilst large organisations may then have got less of the funding pie than they would if they had gone on their own, they get access to more pies. Greater Together is unusual in that it has large national organisations such as Barnardo’s as members but also small grass roots organisations. Greater Together currently has 76 members; the vast majority of members are from small local youth providers.
Examples of good practice
The Greater Together Consortium has an open membership scheme to any organisation, whether they are 'commission ready' or not; organisations that are commission ready can become full members, organisations that are not yet ready can apply to be associate members. There is a reciprocal arrangement in place between the smaller and the larger organisations, where the larger organisations help to develop the capacity of the smaller ones, who in turn can provide some of the 'grass roots' knowledge and service delivery. The governance structure of Greater Together is based on a “Thirds” principle, one third of the directors are from full membership organisations, one third of the directors are from associate members and a final third are from organisations that do not financially benefit from contracts. This openness and transparency and lack of hierarchy has been very welcomed by members. Greater Together has developed protocols and processes to ensure that any conflicts of interest are both identified and managed.
Questions for further consideration
- What can commissioners do to work more effectively with the third sector?
One aspect could be ensuring that commissioning processes do not penalise a consortium and providing support and encouragement to the setting up of the consortium
- What do people think about consortia?
There are clearly mixed views about consortia working as outlined. Some see it is as a fantastic opportunity to access funding that they would not be able to bid for, others resent having to share funding with other partners. The key issue is one of trust, if there is trust and openness in the consortium then most differences can be worked through and resolved
- Would you join a consortium? Why/ why not?
As an organisation you need to have a clear set of criteria as to when and why you would join a consortium and when you would not and would bid on your own. There needs to be a maturity in consortia working that allows organisations to make these decisions without any bad feelings or negativity.