The relationship between commissioners and service providers has been compared to a dance. When it goes well, providers anticipate the commissioner’s lead and it’s all very graceful. But when it goes badly there’s confusion and they stand on each other’s toes.

Even before the music begins to play, there’s the tricky business of finding someone to dance with. Right now, with the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, the band’s starting up and prospective partners are tentatively asking each other, ‘are ye dancin?’ So how will commissioners make their choice?

Being able to demonstrate your impact will certainly play a part, but charities often find it hard to anticipate commissioners’ evidence needs. For example, our recent survey of criminal justice charities showed that 96% would welcome more information about commissioners’ requirements.

In response, we’ve been speaking to commissioners and asking them what they think makes good evidence. Here are the key messages:

1)     There’s recognition that statistical evidence of impact on re-offending is very hard to obtain. So while it would be valuable to have—and the Justice Data Lab is a great opportunity—it is still perfectly possible to be commissioned without it.

2)     Few organisations can rehabilitate offenders by themselves and there is no “silver bullet”. A range of providers are expected to contribute to offenders’ journeys from crime, which makes an understanding of intermediate outcomes or ‘pathways’ important (we suggest looking at the NOMS Commissioning Intentions document for more information). Above all, commissioners want to work with providers who can articulate the intermediate outcomes they are aiming for, how these will reduce offending and how their service will achieve them.

3)     Commissioners seem more interested in what the evidence shows, than the standard of evidence or methodology used. They’re looking for a diverse mixture of sources (quantitative and qualitative), alongside an impartial assessment and reasonable conclusions.

So we’ve compiled a checklist of some of the specific areas providers should present evidence on;

  • Information on client groups targeted and previous experience working with them.
  • An understanding of the issues impacting on re-offending for this group, and what existing evidence suggests are the best solutions.
  • What the service aims to achieve and how—we refer to this as a ‘theory of change’.
  • The uniqueness, values, passion of the organisation.
  • Assurance about your track record, such as data on levels of engagement with previous projects.
  • A realistic account of resources, scale and geographical coverage. Ideally, this might include other sources of funding you can bring to the contract. Another message is not to over-promise; to start small and build a relationship with the commissioner over time.
  • An accurate assessment of costs and value for money (and recognition that services will be delivered within a limited funding regime).
  • Understanding of how  your contribution will complement other services, and previous experience of working in partnership.
  • The ability to be flexible and adaptive. For example, strategies for dealing with challenging cases.
  • Systems for assessing whether projects have been successful and how you use evidence to continuously improve.
  • The ability to innovate, to have new ideas and to feedback to commissioners when you think they are wrong.

Within this list different commissioners do emphasise different areas, but one thing they all agree on is the need to act quickly. Contract negotiations for Transforming Rehabilitation will take place during autumn 2013, so to avoid ending up as a  wallflower, providers should be marshalling and communicating their evidence as soon as possible.

A longer version of this article looking at evidence from different perspectives is available here.

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