What commissioning looks like from the inside

Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales published its Crisis in Commissioning report in 2016 which found central and local government were using bureaucratic, complex and inappropriate contracting and commissioning processes to secure vital public services. The experiences of small charities taking part in commissioning processes revealed a system in crisis which left charities threatened with closure and the future of public services, including homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health support, at risk.

In an exclusive post, an anonymous former commissioner reveals what commissioning looks like from the inside. Read their blog below: 


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Nothing tells you you’re bad at your job like being disinvited from a speaking engagement by a friend. But that’s the life of a commissioner: you make a lot of mistakes and you make them publicly.

Having been a commissioner, I was struck by the examples of poor practice outlined in Lloyds Bank Foundation’s Commissioning in Crisis report and at how many of these I myself or other commissioners I know have committed. Poor practices listed in the Foundation’s report include:

  1. Unrealistic payment structures
  2. Inaccurate information
  3. Absurd and irrelevant demands
  4. Pushed out by backroom deals
  5. Penalised for quality and success
  6. Funding shortfalls
  7. Unfunded TUPE requirements
  8. Forced mergers
  9. Breakdown in relationship
  10. Inappropriate contract amalgamations and divisions

So why is this failure so endemic? Why is the job so hard?

Culture

Local authorities are complex. Few other organisations can consist of such a range of responsibilities and professions, from town planners to social workers. In such a context, misunderstandings are commonplace, and getting traction for change is difficult and time-intensive. Local authorities face a £5 billion funding gap and the pressure of that – varying authority to authority – can be immense. Commissioners have to create, sell, and steer their ideas through cultures that may not understand them, may not agree with them, and may not be able to afford them. It is very easy to come unstuck.

Complexity

Commissioning is not a linear process and decisions are shaped by other timelines, budgets, and a range of other decision makers, from councillors to service managers, and internal procurement, legal and property teams. No matter how prepared you are, it is easy to overlook things. In my view, this complexity can lead to commissioners making rushed and imperfect decisions. There is a lot of room for error when a process is so complex.

Data and research

Our decisions are only as good as our data, but this can be a blind spot for local authorities.  Many don’t invest enough in research and fail to utilise its full benefits. As a commissioner, you need the skills and foresight to manage multiple datasets and structure and conduct your own qualitative research. Because of the lack of research culture, if timelines are squeezed and resources are tight, research is often the first thing to go out the window.

Skills

Commissioning requires a range of skills – research, advocacy, financial analysis, collaboration. Almost inevitably, commissioners can be under-skilled for the task. As a profession it has far less training than you may think – and many of my colleagues were forced to learn through making mistakes. That’s when people can get defensive and deflective – if they’re out of their depth and they know it. What makes this deeply troublesome is that commissioners are making decisions on multi-million pound spend.

Commissioning has always been a tough job and it’s become harder. Yet I believe commissioners can be powerful advocates for social change. I’ve seen colleagues do incredible work to reimagine services, empower providers, reduce waste so spend can be better used. I’ve seen colleagues work tirelessly to improve the lives of people facing disadvantage. With the right support and funding, commissioners are an important, valuable and progressive force who can help enact change and make a difference.

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