boardroom sign on a door

Tough messages for trustees

By Iona Joy 7 November 2012

Trustee Boards and their charities need to be ‘match fit’ for the harsh world of commissioning:

  • Do they have the right people with the right skills able  to keep pace with developments and respond to issues quickly?
  • Boards should check their charity’s strategy is right for the current environment. That doesn’t mean charities should change their mission, but they may want to have another look at how they can achieve it.
  • Boards should  encourage chief executives to ‘get out there’ and develop relationships, so that if charities need collaborative friends, they’ve already met some potential bid partners.
  • And boards should plan, plan, plan—scenarios may be scary but the worst case is predictable, so prepare for change!

These were the messages of a group of panellists at last night’s event on ‘Governance in a new commissioning landscape’, organised by NPC and hosted by The Clothworkers Company. It was a useful and practical debate, confronting the realities of bidding wars, competition, cuts and risk, and how charities needed to adapt.

As one panellist observed—where there were previously 11 service providers in his ‘patch’, there are now only four being commissioned. Three of the ‘losers’ have subsequently closed or merged. Harsh stuff.  Another ventured that Boards should review the capabilities of their management team in light of any changes in strategy. If teams don’t have the necessary skills for this new environment, then the options are either training/development or change of personnel. Another participant stressed the need for outcomes measurement and evidence to prove value.

The Social Value Act featured in discussions and was viewed from a pretty cynical standpoint. Was it enforceable? Would any challenges be successful? And if they were successful, would this result in a proliferation of tick-box bureaucracy to prove social value so that commissioners could later defend their bid selections? The problem with tick-box bureaucracy is that commercial companies with large bid teams would quickly get good at satisfying the requirements, and overtake the socially valuable charities that were supposed to benefit from the legislation. So, although charities are thinking about how to turn the Act to their advantage, the conclusion was don’t rely on it as a magic wand.

A few top tips:

  • Assume your commissioner knows nothing about you when you bid. He or she will be using a scoring system and if your experience isn’t down on paper, it won’t be counted.
  • Think about forming groups/consortia/special purpose vehicles and,  if you do, having a single point of accountability and coherent governance will reduce duplication, uncertainty and administrative burdens. (NPC’s future events on collaboration will discuss these issues in more detail).
  • Do look out for anxiety among staff, and try to support and encourage them in these uncertain times.
  • Do get your local councillors to support your cause with procurement officers mired in process and risk aversion.
  • Look out for opportunities where providers have started voting with their feet and walked away from bids. You may be able to go in and negotiate something sensible.
  • Make yourself indispensable to your commissioners. Know and stress your USP!
  • Spread risk is better than one egg in a basket.

And my last tip is this. If your charity is feeling the heat, and you as a trustee are finding the kitchen a little hot, you aren’t alone. But if its too hot for you—find a successor on the board who can handle the heat!

Iona Joy and Sarah Hedley co-authored When the going gets tough, charities’ experiences of public services commissioning.