The need for a revolution in local authority commissioning

This item first appeared on the Huffington Post on 13th August 2014

 Local authorities are facing an unprecedented squeeze on their finances. The ‘Graph of Doom’ that illustrates how councils will have no money to spend by 2020 have become familiar. Local government, as we know it, cannot survive in its current form. Forward thinking authorities will understand that they cannot sustain the current level of infrastructure, and streamlined commissioning will become the norm.

Charities, mutuals, the private sector and in-house council services can offer assistance by working with beneficiary groups to co-design, co-create and co-deliver services that meet the priorities identified by councillors and commissioners.

For example, there are currently between 130 and 150 men and women sleeping on the streets of Brighton and Hove each night. The traditional model has seen local government officers undertaking needs assessments, others preparing strategies and action plans, and still more commissioning and then monitoring services. The input from some very clever (and expensive) consultants may also be sought.

Yet not a single homeless person has been spoken to, engaged with, or offered any practical assistance. The policy and commissioning work is mostly undertaken professionally, and will normally be comprehensive. There is no doubt about the commitment and integrity of those doing this work, although some have little, if any, practical experience of service delivery.

In the prevailing economic environment, this approach is no longer affordable, nor is it needed, and often it has not produced the required outcomes. At worst it has created an industry of inconsequential strategy writing, micro-management, and people working (and earning) well above their abilities.

The new model would see councillors and one or two senior officers identifying an issue, specifying an outcome, and setting a budget. The issue might be, for example, the prevalence of rough sleeping. The specified outcome could be that over a three year contract period the number of people sleeping on the street will be reduced by 40% each year.

Those pitching for the contract would set out how, within the budget constraints, they would deliver the outcomes, how they would work in partnership with others, and what added value and additional impact they would bring. (I deliberately didn’t use the word tendering which has become unnecessarily bureaucratic and expensive for both local authorities and those tendering).

The contract can then be awarded to those with a proven track record best likely to deliver the set outcomes and add the greatest value. Based on outcomes alone, commissioners can cancel contracts in the event of underperformance.

To work it will require councillors and senior officers to have confidence in their own judgements because they will, rightly, be held accountable themselves on the performance of those with whom they contract.

Many local authorities will opt for the traditional way of doing things which will mean less public spend on services while protecting spend on unnecessary council bureaucracy. Those willing to rise to the challenge will get better value for money, greater innovation and increased entrepreneurship from those delivering services. It will also cost them much, much less in unnecessary processes.

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One thought on “The need for a revolution in local authority commissioning

  1. In broad scope, I’d agree with this, but there’s two caveats. What happens when the LA has lost the ability to provide for the contract itself? And commissioning itself isn’t a neutral act; prioritising people with a proven track record sounds ostensibly fine, but it’s a way of creating larger delivery bodies which, as sure as night follows day, degrade T&Cs for people doing the delivery. So, there have to be additional criteria beyond that, to enable council’s to support new providers in their areas (the track record policy is essentially the ‘no-one got fired for buying IBM’ which locks out social enterprises etc from contract provision, because they can’t get the foot in the door because of the safety first approach.

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