Virgin Trains, commissioning and a role reversal for Branson

I’ve only been following the news around Virgin Trains losing a contract in passing rather than in depth. What follows is therefore likely to be a highly dubious, ill-informed, based-on-principle-probably-not-on-ascertainable-fact bluster.

As such, it is perfectly suited to my blogging it.

In summary: Virgin Trains has lost a contract to run the West Coast Mainline to the First Group because its submission (though considered realistic) was not as valuable to the commissioners as the winner’s bid (which could contain overly-wild promises).

As a result, Richard Branson is unhappy and has used a considerable amount of time and resource to try and reverse the decision.

To which, all I’m afraid I can say is, “tough”.

In another area of public policy – namely, health – the Virgin group has developed an offer called Virgin Care, which has secured a number of contracts that will replace existing services – some delivered by the NHS itself and others by voluntary and community sector organisations.

If commissioning results like these take the form of others we have come across, the winning bids will include overly-wild promises around levels of service and the costs for which they can be delivered. In some cases, such service levels cannot be delivered at such costs; this can often mean the provider that had previously run the service re-taking it over following some sort of failure by the new provider. You can take it as read that user outcomes are rarely improved whilst these service provider / commissioner shenanigans are going on.

Thus, what has happened to the Virgin Group in its West Coast Mainline bid is what Virgin Care (and others like them) are likely to have done to many an existing provider in other policy areas.

The difference being, though, that existing providers in the NHS and VCS very often don’t have the PR profile, finance and legal resources on which to draw to mount significant campaigns to overturn a commissioning decision.

Personally, I think Richard Branson – as successful as he has been, and as much as he’s a respected entrepreneur – should accept what many other providers before him have had to accept: the Virgin Trains bid, no matter how realistic and deliverable, lost on the things that commissioners think they value.

As and when he is proved to be right about the level of service West Coast customers will get, so he should consider how outfits such as Virgin Care and the like have played the equivalent role of the First Group in health.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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