Cabinet Office launches Commissioning Academy

After highlighting some of the best resources available on commissioning and procurement last week, it would be silly not to mention the new Commissioning Academy, launched by the Cabinet Office at the end of last week.

The Commissioning Academy will:

bring commissioners from different parts of the public sector together to learn from the example of the most successful commissioning organisations. It will develop a cadre of professionals who are progressive in their outlook on how the public sector uses the resources available.

The programme aims to help commissioners deliver more efficient and effective public services. Success will mean commissioners embracing new and innovative forms of delivery, better outcomes for citizens and better value for money.

A brochure for the Commissioning Academy is here and a framework document, which summarises what commissioning means to the Commissioning Academy, is here.

You can find the Commissioning Academy on Twitter @CommissioningAc.


The most useful resources on commissioning and procurement

Commissioning, procurement and how accessible public sector contract opportunities are to voluntary sector organisations will always be a considerable issue. It’s one that isn’t short of people’s time, thoughts and efforts – either in the past, present or future.

Such efforts tend to fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. Resources that support voluntary sector organisations to be better at responding to procurement / tendering opportunities (toolkits, masterclasses, training courses etc.)
  2. Resources that support commissioners to make procurement and tendering more accessible for voluntary sector organisations (example policies, legislative or regulatory incentives etc.)
  3. Examples of where efforts have worked in practice (case studies, events etc.)

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there are hundreds of publications dedicated to this topic. This post very briefly notes some of the most useful resources on commissioning and procurement that already exist or are on their way in each of the above, particularly for disabled people’s user-led organisations.

Resources that support voluntary sector organisations / DPULOs

Resources that support commissioners

Practical case studies

By definition, this post hasn’t tried to capture all resources on commissioning and procurement. However, if there are particularly good resources that aren’t included in the above please do let me know in the comments below or via Twitter (@rich_w).

Demos’s report on pre-payment cards

I’ve just had a quick read of Demos’s report published today on pre-payment cards.

Recall that pre-payment cards (also called prepaid cards) are like debit cards, where funds are loaded into an account linked to the card and then spent by the card holder until the balance reaches zero. They can be used to make purchases, set up direct debits or standing orders, and sometimes withdraw cash at ATMs.

There has been an increased usage of pre-payment cards by local authorities, especially in the area of administering Direct Payments in social care, and the Demos report makes recommendations about them being considered for wider use, for example in benefits administration and other forms of public payments.

The topic of pre-payment cards is an emotive one, since it symbolises the concept of the state potentially or actually prescribing what Direct Payments or benefits can be spent on. This is fascinating in itself because, as the report highlights, pre-payment cards are essentially a question of the “nitty-gritty of implementation”.

Of course, I have views on pre-payment cards and whether they should be used. This comes from being pretty heavily involved in two areas of work – Direct Payments implementation and making the Right to Control a reality – and especially from the perspective of service users. I’m painfully familiar with the both the advantages and disadvantages that can arise in making payments to people or trying to integrate several types of payment. As I told the judge, I now know more about the appearances of money laundering than I probably should do.

For those interested in the issues, the Guardian has an article by Ally Fogg which covers a lot of the debate.

The wider point to make, though, is that Demos should be congratulated for at least bringing the topic out into the open. Pre-payments cards are a growing phenomenon and there is a need for an open debate on their merits and demerits, rather than their use growing in the absence of a debate.

It would be great if a space could be created in which this debate can take place that brings together users, public bodies, government and those providing pre-payment cards.

The case for coproduction – made in March 1788

Karl Wilding – a brilliant and ridiculously nice man – recently tweeted:

Karl’s is such a straightforward observation that belies how odd thinking about public services and the quest for innovation or newness is.

This reflection was further proven by this brief part of the Federalist Paper 73, where Publius (actually Alexander Hamilton) wrote the following in his discussion of the Executive branch’s powers over the Legislature:

The oftener the measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situations of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest.

It is far less probable, that culpable views of any kind should infect all the parts of the government at the same moment and in relation to the same object[.]

I’ve read many justifications and reasons for coproduction in public services. Hamilton’s two sentences above serve as one of the best there is, and was written in March 1788.

DPULOs Making a Difference: Working with commissioners – Expression of Interest


Commissioners working in all areas of the public sector – social care, health, children’s services, employment, justice system, education etc. – will be vital to the future strength and sustainability of Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations.

Yet the experience DPULOs have of commissioners – and that commissioners have of DPULOs – can be very varied. This gives rise to a wide variety of outcomes for DPULOs themselves and the work they do: from thriving and growing year on year to struggling to survive from one month to the next.

Great examples exist of where DPULOs and commissioners have worked well together for the benefit of disabled people in their communities. These examples include innovative use of commissioning and procurement, as well as through softer approaches such as partnerships and relationships. Such “working well” leads to:

  • The voice of disabled people being captured and represented in a local area
  • Innovative and effective service delivery by DPULOs.

However, these examples aren’t necessarily well known – to either DPULOs or commissioners. Furthermore, the factors underpinning why this work happens in some places and not in others isn’t as well understood as it should be.

A collection of case studies

Building on and extending work that others have done (such as SCIE and ripfa) the Strengthening DPULOs Programme is commissioning a collection of case studies to address these gaps. The collection will show how DPULOs and commissioners have worked successfully together and the reasons for this.

The collection will cover:

  • Examples of how commissioners and DPULOs have worked together
  • The practicalities of how the relationship worked
  • What the successful results were of this relationship
  • The key factors that enabled this success to happen
  • What general lessons we can learn from DPULOs and commissioners working successfully together.

Case studies could potentially include examples of:

  • Commissioners reserving contracts for DPULOs using existing legislation and regulations
  • Significant contracts being issued for voice/engagement-related work
  • How DPULOs and commissioners have worked together to deliver value for money at a time of austerity
  • Strategic partnerships between DPULOs and commissioners
  • Commissioners working with DPULOs to support their move into new service delivery areas
  • Effective engagement between DPULOs and emerging Health & Wellbeing Boards and local HealthWatch organisations.

Complementary work

This collection of case studies would complement other work we are doing on the role of commissioners in the sustainability of DPULOs. This other work includes:

  • Promoting DPULOs through funding and procurement – targeted work with local authority commissioners in a particular region
  • A piece of qualitative research with commissioners to understand their views and perspectives of DPULOs, and the barriers that may affect commissioners being able to buy the services of DPULOs.


The collection of case studies would be widely disseminated through the DPULO network associated with the Strengthening DPULOs Programme and all its communications channels, including the ODI website, monthly email and social media.

We would also wish to disseminate this report to each local authority in the country, as well as relevant representative bodies (such as the Local Government Association). A full stakeholder map will be developed as part of this work; any suggestions that people have of networks we should share this work through would be welcome.

The collection will also inform the work of the Strengthening DPULOs Programme and others on how best to support DPULOs in their work and relationships with commissioners.

How you can get involved

The collection of case studies will be coordinated and written by a DPULO. Support will also go directly to the DPULOs whose work is being profiled in order to support their effective contribution.

The role of the coordinating DPULO will be to:

  • Scope and agree potential DPULO case studies
  • Produce a case study template
  • Liaise with each chosen DPULO in writing their case study
  • Contribute to writing an introduction and conclusion for the collection
  • Draft the final collection
  • Support development of a stakeholder map for dissemination.

We anticipate this work will take approximately 10-15 days in total.

Expressions of Interest

We would like DPULOs to submit a brief (no more than 3 sides A4) Expression of Interest to coordinate this collection of work.

Your Expression of Interest should cover:

  • The DPULO’s knowledge, understanding and expertise regarding commissioners and commissioning/procurement
  • The DPULO’s knowledge and understanding of the barriers DPULOs face when it comes to commissioning and procurement
  • Demonstrable evidence of the DPULO’s networks and contacts with other DPULOs
  • The DPULO’s experience in project management
  • The DPULO’s experience in delivering high quality written materials in relatively short timescales
  • The DPULO’s capacity to demonstrate the ability to deliver this work within the next 2-3 months
  • Your proposed daily rate for this work.

This Expression of Interest will be considered and marked by the Strengthening DPULOs Programme team, and the coordinating DPULO will be chosen solely on the basis of the information provided. The work will be resourced through a grant to the coordinating DPULO.

Please submit your Expression of Interest to by 5pm on Wednesday 25 April 2012.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with Rich above. Similarly, if you know someone who may be interested, please pass this information on to them.

March 2012

Enabling #dpulo contributions through commissioning

I’m very sorry for being late on this post – time has just got the better of me.

Nevertheless, I’m attending a meeting tomorrow where we’ll be talking about how Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations can be better served in commissioning / tendering / procurement processes, and what some of the barriers to this are.

Fortunately, this is the start of a conversation rather than the end of one, so I’ll be coming back to people with further requests for input etc. over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, below are thoughts on key facilitators that are under the control of commissioners to positively shape and create such a level playing field for DPULOs at:

  • A strategic (commissioning-based) level
  • A more practical (procurement-based) level

I’ve also included information on the truly brilliant bit of EU legislation known as Article 19.

However, we start with feedback from very kind people who contributed thoughts via various social media outlets:

Initial ideas from people off Twitter and beyond

  • Longer lead in times for commissioning
  • Easier application process
  • DPULO tendering and commissioning network with range of skill-specific consortia
  • Allow for core funding. Permit core funding in budget guidelines
  • Representative support and help for DPULOs
  • A national protocol for commissioners when working with disabled people’s organisations
  • Remove restrictive financial penalties e.g large bonds, non-performance penalties & difficult payment structures
  • Reduce red tape (or at least make it proportionate)
  • Include social value tests to balance Value for Money criteria e.g. involvement of ‘client and customer group’ in governance and staffing of the organisation. (Or, at least, have suitable balance between the two in tender specifications)

A more general point that a few people made about commissioning was that involving users at every step of the way through coproduction should be fundamental to the process; indeed, some suggested it should be compulsory.

Facilitators at a commissioning level

Commissioners can develop and implement policies that:

  • Stimulate the participation of public service users by encouraging the development of local groups and promoting the use of voluntary sector infrastructure resources to include and benefit service user groups
  • Work in dynamic partnership with individuals, communities and their representatives – such as DPULOs – to define, develop and deliver high quality services
  • Foster a level playing field for user-led and carer’s organisations to compete in any tendering process
  • Look to commission specifically from local providers
  • Look to commission specifically from voluntary sector providers
  • Recognise the added value that DPULOs can offer
  • Recognise the wider role of DPULOs when carrying out their duty to promote disabled people’s equality especially in drawing up and implementing local equality plans
  • Ensure support enables Independent Living and embodies the ethos of choice, control and for all people to participate as equal citizens in society
  • Ensure that local contracting procedures do not discriminate unfairly against small / new / DPULOs
  • Offer Contracts, not Service Level Agreements, in order to give potential DPULO providers flexibility over service delivery
  • Offer 3- or 5-year funding arrangements, rather than year on year, to support service improvement and provider stability.

Article 19 and reserving contracts

Article 19 regulations of the Procurement Directive 2004/18/EC form a part of European legislation that allows organisations to reserve public contracts for supported businesses, meaning it is permitted to invite only supported businesses to bid for the work.  A supported business employs disabled people as over 50% of its workforce. For contracts under £144k, it is therefore allowable to simply invite a supported business – such as a local DPULO – to bid for a contract or offer them the chance to match the best price.

Awareness of Article 19 is very low, so sharing information about it and ensuring commissioners are aware of it would be very useful. (More info on it is available here and here).

Facilitators at a procurement level

There are a number of practical things procurement teams can do to ensure procurement processes do not adversely impact DPULOs. These are as follows:

  • Ensure DPULOs are given adequate time to respond to tenders
  • Consider using a restricted or selective tender list, or a ‘single source’ approach to target organisations controlled by users (particularly in cases of extending existing arrangements)
  • Ensure DPULOs are specifically made aware of potential services particularly noted under the areas they typically work in (i.e. Information and advice, Advocacy and peer support, Support in using Direct Payments (e.g. Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG), payroll, brokerage, support planning, Disability equality training, Support for the implementation of the Disability Equality Duty)
  • Ensure organisations who have not bid for contracts before are particularly aware of new opportunities
  • Ensure procurement portals are accessible
  • Ensure tender documents are accessible and proportionate to the contract in question
  • Ensure that the value for money components of the specification take account of the added value often contributed by local organisations representing potentially eligible users. This should particularly be the case in tender marking scheme (where such components of ‘added value’ typically form only 5% of judging criteria)
  • Recognise framework arrangements so that large and smaller organisations can submit joint tenders. Larger organisations may be able to bring economies of scale to the contract while smaller organisations may be better placed to provide specialist services.
  • Observe good practice during the application process through ensuring:
    • Each tender pack contains an evaluation and a complaints form
    • That tender packs are available in a range of accessible formats
    • Guidance documents are provided that cover equal opportunities, partnership working and how to complete the application form
    • All materials relating to a specific tender process are in one place and easy to access
    • Monitoring systems are in place to record the number of smaller organisations bidding for and securing contracts.

To support the development of an inclusive commissioning approach as set out above, commissioners should be encouraged to consider the following to shape their commissioning policy in the first place:

  • Commissioning training from local organisations for commissioners themselves
  • Employing or engaging commissioning experts from the voluntary sector or local SMEs to provide specialist advice and feedback on relevant strategies
  • Mainstream equality and access issues through the commissioning cycle
  • Work with DPULOs to decide how best to commission local support services. Whatever model is developed, the involvement of service users and carers in the design and delivery of services is of vital importance and will encourage better quality support services.

All further thoughts and comments gratefully received.

(Note: The above has been developed and extended from work I’ve done with Social Care Institute for Excellent and research in practice for adults.)

User-led service delivery as part of the market

I read the following question from Baroness (Jane) Campbell and answer from Professor Peter Beresford recently, in the context of independent living. It seemed to me that Peter answered quite brilliantly the “why?” of user-led service delivery as part of the market in public sector provision. I’ve thus reproduced the edited relevant parts of the question and answer below.

Question (Baroness (Jane) Campbell of Surbiton): So it is not all about the money, but money is tight. Do you think that there are any specific changes to Government policy that could better meet the [aim of independent living] without increased funding?

Answer (Peter Beresford): I noticed today [that when] the Government are thinking about introducing competition, then there is immediate mention of the private sector.

[W]e have several sectors here and the most exciting, emerging and radical sector for me is the user-led sector.

Yet, despite the evidence we have from research of the value that that sector can contribute in all sorts of senses as an employer, as a service provider and commissioner, user-led organisations are still not really getting any kind of equality in terms of opportunities to be part of the market, to develop the unique capacities they have to match the rights and needs of disabled people and, of course, to take on the task, which they have always been very skilled at, of recruiting disabled people to employment and to new roles and tasks in our society.

I would hope – and this picks up on what [has been] said about providers – that there could be a real emphasis in reality on a market that is equally open to user-led providers and local providers and where an emphasis is placed on people having opportunities and increased life chances through the employment that they can offer as well as perhaps the better services that they can offer.

If there is one thing we have learnt lately – I think we have learnt the lesson; even the money people tell us the same – it is that we cannot really just go to the most unconstrained approaches to funding private sector organisations if we are really concerned with securing the rights and needs of service users too.

I am not making the point that I know some people make, which I think is a very unhelpful and arbitrary point, that profit and meeting need are just incompatible. That takes us nowhere.

What I think does take us somewhere is recognising the very real contribution that a diverse market would have. That must mean a much bigger role, supported by Government at central and local level, for user-led organisations and services.

Social capital and effective communities

In my two previous posts about social capital I’ve provided a hopefully useful definition and conceptual map of what social capital is and a brief summary of some interesting findings when it comes to social capital’s causal effect on a range of policy areas, specifically: economic performance, health and wellbeing, and education.

This post gets down into the area I’m really interested in: how the roots of the effectiveness of communities lie in their citizens’ social capital.

Again, the examples and analysis are brief, but hopefully illustrative.

Getting on together (or not)

Clearly, a group of people that gets on better with each other (i.e. a question of how bonding their bonding social capital is) will find it easier to work together and achieve success than a group which doesn’t get on. It could be that people don’t get on because of clashes of personality, or just because everyone in the group doesn’t know each other well enough.

There’s a lovely example of how and why this can matter, as quoted in Halpern:

Following the closure of military bases there are often a number of options for what happens to the land released. A case study contrasted the face of the land from two airforce bases that were closed in the USA, both roughly equal in size and natural resource attributes. At one base, all the significant wildlife habitat was destroyed by real estate development, but at the other, nearly a fourth of the land was preserved as a wildlife refuge. The authors concluded that the most significant factor accounting for the radically difference outcomes was not the strength of any objective case, but the social capital and political culture of the communities surrounding the bases, enabling one community to lobby and act much more effectively than the other.

(For those interested in the case, it is captured in the following: Burton, L. and Williams, T. (2001) This bird has flown: the uncertain fate of wildlife on closed military bases. Natural Resources Journal, 41(4): 885-917.)

A further example is the way in which tenants’ associations managed buildings in New York that were handed over to them to run themselves. Where such ownership arrangements were successful, this was thought to be the result of higher social capital – particularly bonding and linking – found in the buildings.

Finally, another good example of linking social capital in particular is citizens’ committees. These are brought together in order to address specific local issues, and have been shown to be most successful when they ensure several different ways of liaising with and contacting local government. Furthermore, local government views such committees as a key source of valued information.

Getting out (or not)

The issue of bridging social capital and the associated (and controversial) concept of “closure” are a very interesting part of this work.

“Closure” is very tight bonding social capital without any bridging capital. Though the very strong and close relationships between members of a particular community means they can pass on their values and beliefs to their fellow members and next generation, it’s not always the case that these values or beliefs are necessarily good for the group.

To take a counter-example from Halpern:

A longitudinal study of rural American communities found that horizontal linkages of community leaders – their links with other important community figures – [was] particularly important for their communities’ long-term viability.

Those communities that don’t then have those horizontal bridging links, but do have strong bonding links, may find themselves in difficulty as a result. The wider social and political networks from which they are disconnected could leave them vulnerable to decisions being made “about them” without the opportunity to participate or influence them. (If I’m feeling brave enough, I may one day apply the idea of “closure” – albeit “closure” for understandable reasons – to the disability movement.)

The downsides of social capital in effective communities

Even though good amounts of social capital can make for more effective communities, it can have its downsides:

High social capital as manifested in high-trust, frequent meetings and freely flowing information among dense social networks can mean that the whole community is involved in decision-making, but it can also make the process time-consuming and extended. For example, a study of communities affected by the 1997 Red River Flood in Canada found that those with higher levels of social, as well as physical and human, capital were better prepared and more effective in responding to the flood. But such higher levels of social capital also made decision making more complex and brought with them the risk of delays.

Interestingly, the overall pattern of social capital in Britain is one that suggests there has been a significant decline in its presence over the last few decades (though not, it should be said, as wide as the decline in the USA). An interesting detail of this decline, though, is that it is more accurate to say that this decline is not homogenous. Indeed, the UK’s middle classes are most likely to be associated with gently rising social capital – for example, through more memberships of and involvement in more organisations – whilst the manual classes are most likely to be associated with sharply falling social capital.

Thus, what once was a phenomenon at the level of the individual known as the “sharp elbows” of the middle classes – meaning that choice in the system tended to benefit the better off as they navigated various complex systems (such as education and health) – is now also to be found in the context of what makes for effective communities and local government.

Pre-payment cards in personalised public services

In a personalised public service the individual has choice and control over the services they receive. If the public agency in this policy area enables individuals to take the cash equivalent of a service instead of having it paid for by the commissioner – such as local authorities in the case of Personal Budgets in adult social care, or PCTs (as is) as Personal Budgets are being trialed in the health service – then one of the questions becomes how the individual can make payments to buy services they want.

In our day-to-day lives we hardly question this. Most of us have a bank account which holds our money and we use a debit card over which we have control to make payment from our bank account to a service provider whose service we want to buy, e.g. Waterstone’s, Kwik Fit, Tesco.

Some services offer a form of loyalty card, in which you can pre-pay money onto a card and use that card instead of cash at that service. A good example of this is Starbucks (as my bank account will attest).

Over the last two or three years, public agencies have looked at pre-payment cards as a means by which to support and implement personalised public services. Some recent research by DWP (pdf) into “smartcard” schemes (which actually go slightly wider than just pre-payments cards, since they don’t necessarily entail money) has some interesting findings around the use of such cards, which I thought it would be useful to share.

The first area of interest is whether smart cards are available generally for all members of the public or for a specific subset of the local population. The key issue here is one of cost and scale. General schemes cover areas such as travel, leisure and library services, whereas more specific schemes can be found, for example, for only adult social care users.

The second area of interest is the benefits to service users, captured as follows:

  • A smartcard allows a user to complete an application form for services “only once”. Having done so for the card, they can then access all of the services that card is designed to cover
  • Smartcard schemes can offer individuals greater access to local and potentially national services
  • Smartcards can potentially offer financial benefits in the form of service discounts for users.

There are, of course, benefits to public agencies too:

  • Though smartcard schemes have a high set-up value, the ability to add on further services under the scheme is much lower than a standalone scheme at a later date
  • Administrative costs for public agencies associated with making payments to service users and providers should decrease because of automation of the paying process and record collecting
  • A central smartcard system can help with better data collection
  • Smartcards can in theory (and sometimes in practice) drive joined-up working across public agencies or departments within one single organisation.

A very good example of pre-payments cards is Cheshire East Council’s Empower Card (pdf). According to the Council, this has resulted in efficiency savings of 49% concerning the users engaged in the scheme – a saving of some £236,000 on the previous account management process.

There are undoubtedly some issues regarding smartcards, not least of which is whether the costs of investing up front in a scheme provides realisable savings later on (I suspect it can, though I suspect the potential for significant costs is also a reasonable risk).

Even so, smartcards are a useful innovation that can enable service users to have more choice and control over the services they receive whilst saving money for public agencies.

Some more research on smartcards will be published next year by the National Centre for Social Research, which I’ll hopefully blog about then.