If it ain’t broke – we will fix it

Commissioners and others involved in making big strategic decisions about critically important public services bang on about the importance of the voluntary sector, about engaging people, about drawing on local knowledge and intelligence and about building on community assets. But sadly, in many (though admittedly not all) cases this seems like empty rhetoric. They talk the talk but don’t walk the talk.

A carers organisation I have worked with recently has just failed to be re-commissioned to continue to provide the main carers assessment and support contracts in its county. It lost out to a large national provider, part of a for profit-company, whose main work is in training, employment and workforce and has no experience in working in that county and relatively limited experience in the carers sector. It’s also a company with a less than blemish free record of delivering public service contracts.

Apparently “my” organisation beat the eventual winner on three out of the five key criteria – just losing out by a whisker on price. Its future is now in doubt; its relationships, networks, partnerships and insight all lost; and its staff, though TUPE’d across, will inevitably be facing an uncertain and very different future. Most importantly carers, who have enough stress to cope with, will be having to deal with a new organisation and a new way of doing things.

Surely, this almost continuous process of commissioning and competitive procurement cannot be a sensible or cost-effective way of ensuring consistent high-quality public services. Fair enough to re-commission where an existing service is clearly failing to deliver but it makes no sense to impose the inefficiencies, costs and stress of re-commissioning when a provider is doing a good or quite likely an excellent job. OFSTED gets plenty of criticism but even it wouldn’t require the leadership and governing body of an “excellent” or “good” school to be thrown up into air in pursuit of competition.

What we need, in my view, is longer contracts but with greater powers (and resources) for commissioners to help providers improve where there is poor performance. That would be a good start. Government could also require commissioners to put greater weight on local knowledge, intelligence, networks and social capital in their procurement processes.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking, practice and the culture of commissioning and procurement. It requires a less reductionist, more flexible, longer term, more sustainable and, put simply, more intelligent methods of ensuring people and communities get the services they need. And one that doesn’t line the pockets of companies who are required by their owners and shareholders to put profit first.

Stephen Woollett