Commissioning: here to stay

By Dan Corry 1 June 2015

A quick glance at the Conservative manifesto shows that commissioning and payment by results is here for the long run. Not all of this is great news, to put it mildly, for the voluntary sector—especially the smaller charities and community groups.

In a commendable move, the Lloyds Bank Foundation recently brought together a number of diverse but interested parties, including NPC. The aim was to discuss where we are with charities being commissioned to deliver public service, and how we can make sure that government listens to the issues that perplex the charity and social enterprise sector.

It gave me pause to think about the range of work that NPC has done in this area over the years. With our focus on whether commissioning is good for beneficiaries (rather than charities per se), we ask slightly different questions to other groups and our work reflects this.

Here are some of the ways that NPC has been looking at public service commissioning and procurement in recent times, aiding charities in getting the most out of it for the people they serve:

  1. Helping the sector to prove its worth to commissioners or other parts of government is important, not least because some may not have a cost-effective impact. Part of the solution is for charities and other voluntary groups to get better at doing it, and at investing in what works, as I argued here. NPC has worked in many different ways to help charities prove their worth: through the Justice Data Labour practical guides to measuring impact; our online survey tool NPC’s Well-being Measure; and initiatives like Inspiring Impact.
  2. NPC has been involved in the Social Value Act Review. This is in order to help strengthen the framework within which commissioners can take account of social impact, as we think there is a lot of (legal) risk aversion there.
  3. We have followed the Transforming Rehabilitation process very closely and are having discussions with some of the charities involved in these contracts to understand what happened there. We suspect non-profits can never get prime contracts of any scale and so the focus needs to be on securing sub-contracting conditions that are good for charities.
  4. Recently, we looked at how the new EU and UK procurement rules could be used to help commissioners to help charities access their markets more, and produced this paper outlining the key points.
  5. We have also explored the unique issues related to commissioning in different fields, such as the health sector and the arts. Developments in health services commissioning seem especially important as this is the area where new models are emerging—such as so-called Devo Manc—which may offer some fluidity that could help the sector.
  6. We know that one thing that smaller voluntary sector groups offer is that they add community ‘glue’ and bring social capital. However, it can be hard to evaluate and we know that a number of funders are concerned about how they do this and about how they fund the creation of social capital. For this reason, we’re keen to see improvements in measurement in this area which is so often supported by grant funding and ‘loose’ contract funding (see p 30-34 here).
  7. We see a surprising number of smaller charities with few contracts or assets playing around with social investment and social investment bonds (SIBs). A good consequence of this is that they are getting better at measuring their impact. With this in mind, we have put out guides to charities and funders about the basics of social investment and SIBs—in this paper, for example.
  8. Lastly, all of this contract and statutory funding gets some charitable funders worried about additionality—whether their contributions are additional to statutory funding or they are subsidising services paid for by the taxpayer. We put out a paper on this recently to help.

Getting the balance right between arguing for changes in the direction of policy, which is hard in times of austerity, and helping the sector live in this new world is tricky. We hope that NPC can play its own, distinctive role in both these areas.