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Co-Missioning: a way to rethink how community and public sectors pursue outcomes?

By Samantha Magne 1 March 2024 5 minute read

In this guest blog Sam Magne, Knowledge & Learning Manager at The National Lottery Community Fund, reflects on their new discussion paper which offers insights from supporting charity and public service collaboration. 

For a long time, people working across the public and voluntary sectors have grappled with how to work together better. The Voluntary Sector Compact, which evolved out of a national process spanning successive governments, addressed some of the challengesincluding misconceptions that such commissioning of public services should primarily be about procurement with a buyer-seller dynamic. The Compact guidance highlighted a government definition to clarify that commissioning is about: ‘making the best use of all available resources to produce the best outcomes for our locality’.  It explains how this is a definition that casts the net for resources wide, including voluntary sector resources.  

However, alongside this, the wider strategy of procuring the delivery of public services continues to develop. This has included utilisation of public management and governance tools, such as Payment by Results (PbR). More recently, the notion of ‘relational contracting’ has come into focus too in commissioning-policy and allied academic circles.   

At the same time, the concept of ‘relational services’ is evolving through movements of practitioners across sectors who are looking for ways to pursue outcomes more effectively when working with complexity in systems and in people’s lives. Relational contracting and relational services are not the same thing. However, they are both interested in introducing more flexibility into how service remits are specified and delivered in pursuit of the desired outcomes.   

The National Lottery Community Fund has been supporting the voluntary and public sectors to flexibly pursue outcomes together in many ways.  This has included supporting PbR schemes, as well as exploring other ways of developing partnerships to build system-level relationships differently, as part of their strategic pursuit of outcomes.  Now, with ‘relational contracting’ and ‘relational services’ attracting sharper attention, this new discussion paper reflects on insights from our journey, as a contribution to the development of principles guiding the way ahead. 

The paper starts with a look at how PbR contracting was designed to deliver and evidence outcomes before payment is released, noting that PbR arrangements employ different terms and conditions depending on rationales (including production of savings, certainty of impact, and assurance of quality).  The paper offers a typology, unpacking the core logics of PbR and inherent relational dynamics. It then explores the desire for flexibility which has typically emerged as the over-riding aspiration of parties involved, and how this is also reflected in other approaches to Outcome Based Commissioning, including formal relational contracting models. 

The paper then returns to the recognition that, when working with the community sector, commissioning is not solely about procurement and should primarily be about configuring relationships so that best use is made of collective resource. With that in mind, the paper asks whether contracting, of any sort, is the right starting place for this, particularly when working with charities.   

It considers the reason why charities and voluntary groups exist (as distinct from the State and the private sector) and discusses how they are largely formed in communities to provide a ‘third’ sector role in meeting communities’ needs when market and democratic dynamics mean that the private and public sectors can’t.   

From there the paper concludes with a question for public services, third sector organisations, and their champions. It asks whether we all need to move from the procurement-based paradigm of ‘commissioning’ to ‘Co-Missioning’ instead.   

‘Co-Missioning’ envisions a relational or partnership dynamic between commissioners and third sector organisations built around a shared mission. In a Co-Missioning partnership, grantsrather than contracts (including those involving payments by results)might be more appropriate as the mode of contribution by public services and funders to the resource-sharing expressed in the Compact.  Co-Missioning envisions a greater emphasis upon the need for flexibility and trust. Alongside this, it underlines the importance of enhancing new capabilities that would enable all parties in the collaboration to work well with the complexity of the contexts in which they seek to create the conditions for better outcomes in communities.  The paper asks whether ‘Co-Missioning’ might be the approach that mutually enables public bodies and community organisations to more equitably, flexibly, effectively, and accountably co-operate around their shared mission and their collective deployment of resource in pursuit of its outcomes. 

As a funder, our next steps will be shaped by our new strategy; ‘It starts with community’, which will guide our delivery until 2030. Now, with NPC, we are inviting a range of stakeholders, who represent and champion the community sector in the arena of public service commissioning, to join a conversation sparked by our learning as well as their own experience at a roundtable on 27 March.  

If you’re interested in joining this or a follow-up online workshop, or you’re interested in contributing your thoughts into wider discussion, please register your interest before 11 March 2024. And we’ll come back to you in a future blog with key insights that emerge from the discussions.    


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