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Commissioning Angst and Call to Action

I’ve had the genuine pleasure of talking directly with quite a few ‘commissioners’ recently and in several cases it’s been a positive or at least constructive experience. Regrettably I’ve also had some difficult conversations and most frustrating of all, in at least one instance I have tried and tried to discuss some genuine concerns with a commissioner who essentially won’t talk to me. I also note a number of recent commentators including this from David Walker (formerly of the Audit Commission) in the Guardian, describing the all too often adversarial relationship between charities and council commissioners. So why the angst? Well instead of a point by point analysis of why commissioners need to value quality, service, outcome and yes relationships, over and above cost (which I can do by the way), I’m asking commissioners out there to instead think of it like this…

  1. You are an ordinary resident, you see an unmet need (insert carers/older people/families/drug users/any other category). So, you get together with other like-minded folks, friends, colleagues, neighbours and strangers; you talk about it, and after a while you do something about it – you start a service to meet the need, at first its small, local, amateur perhaps, it has issues, it’s far from perfect, but you get it going.
  2. It grows, it develops, it gets bigger and better and you learn and share with others who come on board. You get more volunteers and some free stuff to help you out – it’s still a slog but it’s getting better.
  3. You make a big step next (perhaps with a little help from the CVS), you get some funding, more than you’ve ever had before, so its less hand to mouth, maybe you move into some proper premises? You get more formal and more ‘professional’ – you are a proper organisation now!
  4. Eventually and this could be a few years later, you take on paid staff, you win more grants or donations, and you grow into a team, you share the load – but you continue to put your heart and soul into the project, which by now is establishing itself as a recognised organisation. You are getting known to others including the council and other ‘officials’
  5. Maybe it’s been running now for 5 years, maybe more, maybe 10 or even 20. Eventually, you hit the big time – someone somewhere in a powerful role, a decision maker, a funder, a ‘commissioner’ takes an interest. At first they think you and your organisation is amazing/innovative/ground-breaking – you are solving problems in ways they had never imagined or could never have implemented. They give (perhaps even throw) you money to do more, so you can make things sustainable - you’ve cracked it.
  6. After a while they expect more back in return – reporting/information – ok, no problem, they are funding you after all. They want to know more about the service, how its run, what you do, who the beneficiaries are. Well it’s nice to have people interested.
  7. Then comes the killer. They’ve had a review of funding and they have to go out to tender – to be fair and transparent, to be competitive and get the best value. It’s official – your service is being ‘commissioned’.

This is where I ask commissioners to just pause for a moment and consider this hypothetical scenario, which I know exists many times over in reality. What for you may seem a perfectly reasonable and logical step, what is in these supposedly austere times an understandable bureaucracy designed to get best value for money and better outcomes… to many in the VCSE sector is the specification of what they (and their teams) invented.

If anyone owns it, its them, not the commissioners. And then, the funding which you initially gave them to help make their service flourish, is now being offered, alongside their specification to the highest bidder. In their eyes, you’re not only selling out on them, you are selling their stuff, their intellectual capital, their passion, their innovation, their heart… to someone else!

I deliberatively emphasize here for effect and in reality it’s not as simple as this of course. But the nub of it is this – commissioners would benefit from thinking of themselves as investors rather than consumers, contributors not purchasers. You can buy a service, but you can’t own an idea or the passion and drive that goes with it – to get that benefit, you need a relationship. A deep and meaningful relationship. If you have that then commissioning becomes to a large extent obsolete; it simply withers away in the face of something so much more powerful and effective.

A pipe dream, only if you read this and do nothing.

Garry Jones, Chief Executive