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Why we need NCVO and Serco’s commissioning code

By Tessa Kipping 15 April 2013

Last week NCVO and Serco launched a much-needed, ambitious Code of Practice for the VCS and private sector working together. It’s a welcome move: for far too long guidance and codes from government have given high-level advice, making broad suggestions about how ‘effective supply chains utilise third sector organisations to enrich supply chains’. It’s a nice idea and one that in theory works well, but how do you practically go about working with organisations whose fundamental DNA is so different from your own?

Some mission-driven organisations struggle with conversations about costs, balance sheets and returns on investment, whilst profit-driven organisations  can seem hard-nosed and unsympathetic. These stereotypes are gradually disappearing as new types of relationships are forged in these times of austerity.

NPC, always a champion for charities of all sizes, has been investigating the charity sector’s response to government cuts and new relationship models. Our May 2012 report, When the going gets tough, provided an in-depth insight into how government cuts and new ways of commissioning public services were affecting the charity sector. Most charities believed they faced more risk and uncertainty as a result of the changes; many said that this was driven by a move towards delivering services in partnership.

We concluded that charities needed to continue to build their skills and capacity to respond to bids and compete effectively for contracts in this new environment. They needed to develop and strengthen their relationships with potential partners and think about how they could work together.

It’s an area we’ve continued to work on, because it’s so important to the way so many charities work. Our roundtable in November 2012 on cross-sector partnerships highlighted the increased risk charities faces, and in January, our report Collaborating for impact urged charities to become collaboration-ready. Our ongoing work in the criminal justice system has seen NPC take some of our own medicine and collaborate with G4S, hosting a breakfast seminar to explore how companies and charities can work together to reduce reoffending. With a firm focus on doing what’s best by beneficiaries, the whole sector is waking up to cross-sector partnerships and welcoming the diversity they bring.

Companies are discovering that charities are not so different from themselves (bar the odd hand-knitted rainbow coloured jumper) and charities are realising that making a profit and doing good are not always mutually exclusive. With this growing trend it makes sense to have some guidelines and codes written for partnerships. NCVO and Serco are thankfully ambitious in their approach, offering some practical positive steps for both sectors, commissioners and policymakers.

The code offers practical advice to working in partnership, stressing the importance of building firm foundations, good practice in establishing and managing delivery partnerships, sharing the benefits of scale with smaller partners, investing in partners’ development as commercial service providers and moving towards strategic partnership.

It highlights the differences charities face (charity law, trustee boards) when working on new contracts with companies and the necessity of commercially savvy organisation to support their supply chains to understand contractual obligations. Being clear and agreeing arrangements before hastily signing up to partners is encouraged and transparency is valued. The code urges prime contractors to communicate their partner selection criteria and to not use charities as ‘bid candy’.

With these measures in place it is imaginable that the perception of risk inherent in these types of relationships may diminish. We are especially pleased to see advice for commissioners and policymakers to ensure that data protocols are pre-defined within contracts relating to sharing of information and evidence with various stakeholders. We like to see this type of practice!

It’s a simple and clear document that provides guidance for an often much messier reality: much-needed for the VCS as well as the private sector. We hope that this becomes essential reading for all those about to embark down this long road know as progress.