Local Commissioning for Local Needs

Author: Alex Thomson, Localis (on www.guardian.co.uk)   |  

The government has recently put forward its vision for a new approach to public service provision, giving private firms, voluntary and community groups and local organisations the chance to bid more widely for public service contracts.

This is part of its broader plans to reshape health and education, and to move beyond the traditional state, with the help of the “big society”.

But will these reforms pave the way for more effective and efficient services which are more tailored to the needs of local residents, or herald an era of low quality, low cost services?

We at Localis think that local government in its role as commissioner has a crucial part to play in determining the answer to this question. It is in a unique position to take a strategic approach to the design and delivery of services across the locality, and set a new standard for the commissioning of services which focus on and engage with the broad needs of the community.

But what do we mean by commissioning? Despite what some people might believe, the term is not shorthand for outsourcing everything to the private sector. Nor does the focus on value for money need to mean lower quality, lower cost services. And, even as some councils move towards becoming commissioning organisations, and start to take on a different shape, it definitely does not mean that councillors can abdicate responsibility.

At its best, commissioning is aboutunderstanding people’s needs, and developing innovative approaches to meeting them.

This is where councils can learn in particular from the voluntary and community sector, who for many years have been demonstrating the opportunities for a more flexible approach to assessing and addressing need. For example, community-led commissioning models such as Turning Point’s “connected care” seek to provide a greater link between commissioners’ priorities and the experience and needs of the community. This kind of approach is inspiring councils across the country to engage more effectively and to create more tailored care packages.

Of course, commissioning in local government is not a new idea. From the compulsory competitive tendering of the 1980s through to the best value regime of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown years, councils have been commissioning providers from the public, private and third sectors in delivering local services for decades. However, the commissioning of services by ‘cost’ or ‘value’ has fuelled accusations that it is merely an ideological front for privatisation and cost-cutting, and many have taken issue with the sometimes narrow definitions of value which might have driven more short-termist approaches.

But while there are undoubtedly problems with the current commissioning process, it would be wholly unfair to characterise every council and service provider as solely focused on short-term cost reductions alone. In fact, where there are opportunities to reduce costs in the long term, both councils and service providers have repeatedly shown that they can work in the long term interest of local areas.

For example, a number of local authorities have developed joined-up early intervention strategies, to engage with families at risk of developing multiple problems before these problems escalate, leading to significant savings for the taxpayer, and better outcomes for families. The experience gained in this area is now being developed further as part of the community budgets initiative.

The holy grail for local government must surely be a focus on outcomes, working closely with its public sector partners to allow a range of providers to help devise new solutions to entrenched policy problems and long-term dependency. This focus on outcomes will make it easier for both commissioners, and politicians, to understand where and how true value can be achieved. With a range of strategic commissioning approaches, a wider pool of service providers, greater financial autonomy and pooled budgets, councils could become incredibly effective champions of local residents and ‘place-shapers’ of their local area.

Truly strategic commissioning will involve and engage residents directly in the design of local services and take account of the broader priorities for that community, such as creating a dynamic local economy and a “big society”.

But several issues will need to be addressed to make a total strategic commissioning approach work.

What, for example, will be the role of councillors in this new world? How can procurement be made to support local small to medium enterprises and community groups to provide public services? And how can contracts be drawn up to ensure that service providers take a long term approach to service delivery?

We at Localis have just embarked on a new report examining how local strategic commissioning could deliver better outcomes for local areas. The essence of localism is that people know best. We hope that our report will demonstrate that this notion applies to commissioning public services as well.

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