Commissioning – and Making A Success of It…


If we did a Word Cloud of responses when we talk to small and medium-sized charities about commissioning, no doubt ‘complex’ and ‘unfair’ would feature pretty boldly. Not just because they’re competing for funding in an increasingly tough market but because they’re up against large organisations in commissioning systems that don’t just favour scale, but which actively thwart small and local.

As our Chief Executive Paul Streets outlined in his blog for Third Sector earlier this week, with a new Prime Minister in place who is charged with the task of delivering the referendum mandate of ‘taking back control’, maybe now is the time to call for taking back control of commissioning systems that leave smaller charities out in the cold.

Maybe now is the time to call for taking back control of commissioning systems that leave smaller charities out in the cold.”

With change afoot, is there an opportunity to shape proportionate and effective processes so individuals can access the services they need?

Last year our charities told us that commissioning was one of their greatest challenges. We are now asking them to share evidence of what specifically makes it unfair and complex. Gathering these real life examples helps get government to listen and identifies what needs changing.

Already some common themes are emerging from our survey:

  • A lack of transparency at all stages of commissioning processes
  • Excessive financial and other requirements with ever larger contracts and ‘one-size fits no-one’ processes
  • A lack of understanding from commissioners about what services are actually needed.

Sound familiar? This list is by no means exhaustive. There seems to be no limit to the extent of poor practice, whether it is marking bidders down for questioning a poor contract, changing the goalposts after tenders have already been submitted, demanding services merge as part of the contract or tendering for services at a value that wouldn’t even cover the mileage incurred in delivering the service, let alone paying for the worker or overheads.

Inevitably, the end result of this is often a reduction in access to quality services.

Yes, we’re in an increasingly difficult financial situation but that means it’s more important than ever to get the highest value out of each and every public pound. And it can’t be done without commissioning the right services. For starters, that means making sure commissioning is:

  • based on a thorough needs assessment and understanding, including consulting with existing charities
  • open and honest with timely and effective communications
  • proportionate and appropriate to the need and service

No doubt, if you’re reading this, you know it already. The small and medium-sized charity sector is by and large singing from the same hymn sheet. Now it’s about getting the government to join in and put proposed solutions into practice. As Kathy Evans from Children England has said, we need to build processes which work for the little guys and then add complexity as you climb up the tree, not introduce complex systems for all and trying to manipulate them to work for smaller organisations.

Time and time again we hear how bigger organisations are writing the rule book that smaller charities have no choice but to follow”

Time and time again we hear how bigger organisations, sadly including large charities, are writing the rule book that smaller charities have no choice but to follow, if they deign to communicate at all. Commissioning processes not only allow but encourage this. It’s not limited to bid candy either. There are examples of big organisations demanding that smaller charities don’t negotiate with other bidders, only to leave them out of their final bid, and sub-contracting processes that appear never to have heard of the words ‘accountable’ or ‘transparent’ – all in the name of information being ‘commercially sensitive’ despite its irrelevance. There may be plenty of rhetoric about working with smaller charities but it hasn’t translated into practice. This has to change.

That’s why we’ll use the evidence we gather in our survey to compile an anonymous report that allows charities to speak up and share their experiences without fear of reprisals from commissioners. We’ll take the report to Ministers and officials in Government to bolster the conversations we’ve been having on the need to reform commissioning. We know they’re considering how they might “bust through the barriers” to improve commissioning for smaller charities. We want to be able to cite real life examples of poor, widespread practice and demonstrate how it could be better. If we can find them, we’d also like to include examples of good commissioning, where processes haven’t hindered organisations with a lower turnover. So far, these good examples are harder to find!

If commissioning issues have affected you, now’s your chance to tell us and help us build the case for change. The evidence we’ve collected so far is a testament to the fact that the need for this work is unquestionable. And the bigger the evidence base, the greater impact it will have when it lands, so thanks for taking the time to add your voice to the discussion.

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