A commissioner’s outlook

By Dan Corry 5 December 2012

When a council spends money, one would like to think it knows what it is going to get for that outlay.

That is clearly the case when it wants to buy something simple like pencils, or computers, or vans. We would be horrified if, when asked, the council did not know how many pencils, how many vans it was expecting, or what quality they were.  But surely it ought to be the same when a council spends money to try to solve a social problem. And yet how many public sector procurers even ask the question?

This idea of how much a social policy or intervention achieves is often known as the ‘impact agenda’. In the charity world, it has come from a rather low base, not least because all those involved in giving to charity—big sums or small—and those involved in operating and working for charities, start out with an intention to do good and assume that they do achieve it.

Convincing them that getting a handle on their actual effectiveness with some numbers, and the price at which they achieve desirable outcomes is a good thing to do, has been a slog.

Progress is being made though. The recent NPC impact survey, Making an impact, shows that the sector is increasingly getting on board. Intriguingly, most start to measure their impact because their funder demands it, or because they hope to get more funding if they can show they are good. However the greatest benefit most get out of it is service improvement, the ability to shape their organisation, and the way they deliver in order to help more of those they were set up to support.

This whole approach is vital in a world with less money. As Cabinet minister Francis Maude said at the NPC Conference to launch this study: ‘Impact measurement matters. Charities and social enterprises aren’t being handed anything – you will be competing for these opportunities… and you will need to be able to show that what you are doing works.’ Tough talk, but fair enough, surely.

But it takes two to tango, and so we need to ask what the commissioners, often the local authority, are doing about all this. Sometimes, the answer is “not much”. Some feel that recent developments mean only the provider needs to worry about this sort of material.

If everyone is moving towards using ‘payment by results’ (PBR) contracts, then, surely, all one needs to do as a commissioner is put out a tender with some desired outcomes, look at what comes back, and then, subject to some quality and due diligence procedures, choose the cheapest. Indeed I fear that this is what many are doing. But this is not enough – and it is good that the recent SOLACE summit engaged in discussion of this issue.

First, PBR is not the only game in town, and even where there is an element of PBR, it is rarely the whole contract. But second, even where PBR is going to be the type of contract used, commissioners still need to understand what they are trying to buy, what is a reasonable price to pay, what risk they should be trying to put on the head of providers, and what risk—of non-achievement of the outcomes—are they prepared to put up with?

If they don’t do that, then the whole system will start to fall apart, outcomes will not be delivered, council taxpayers will have been let down, and we will all be in a much worse state. And finally, there will be lots of occasions where to understand even what it is that a council wants to commission will involve having some understanding of their costs, and what the evidence shows is likely to work.

The acceptance that one needs to have an assessment of impact and evaluation leads to a whole myriad of questions. What evidence is enough to convince? How do you measure and value the really hard and ‘soft’ stuff? Are ‘before and after’ studies enough, or is it impossible to get any real feel of net additionality without a control group of some sort or other? Is evidence from a study in the US or other foreign parts good enough to assume it will work in the UK? How do you judge an outcome delivering short-term cashable savings against one that delivers higher ‘wellbeing’ for your community over the longer term?

As we are dealing with real people and social policy, there can be no definitive answers to lots of these conundrums. However, thinking hard from a commissioner’s point of view about these issues is more likely to bring sensible commissioning decisions than ones which ignore it all.

For most people in public service, just as with charities, making a positive difference to people’s’ lives is what drives us. It is time to start getting down to measuring the results we are achieving, and then acting on that.