Remarkable commissioning decision from the DfE

An evaluation (pdf) on the outsourcing of some parts of children’s services ran to 224 pages – a number which says something about the complexity of public services and how they are arranged.

At the time I tweeted the following associated observations:

Since then, the Department for Education has said it will limit such outsourcing opportunities to not-for-profit providers only. Labour is also making very similar noises with regard to DWP’s Work Programme.

If true, this is remarkable.

As others have pointed out, previous governments have said they would do something similar and that this hasn’t always happened (see here and here). But I don’t think I recall a central government department so clearly saying it will specify what type of organisation will provide a service at this sort of scale.

It offers up all sorts of interesting implications as well.

By “interesting”, I of course mean someone has put a can of worms in a hornet’s nest and each of the worms is about to open their very own Pandora’s Box.

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  • How, exactly, can government effect this? We often hear about procurement rules and regulations that ensure “open and fair” competition for public services, so what magical levers will government now use or create?
  • Even if central government figures it out, how will they support their local government commissioning and procurement colleagues to put nearly 30 years of risk-averse, process-led ‘commissioning’ behind them?
  • What, exactly, is a not-for-profit organisation?
  • How long will it be before for-profit providers (G4S, Serco, A4E etc.) issue legal challenges about unfair competition rules?
  • If such limitations can be imposed in children’s services, why not in health services, social care and employment provision? We knew there was never any overarching strategy to public service reform from the coalition (whatever their Open Public Services White Paper said) but DfE’s move, being so completely at odds with what the NHS and DWP are currently doing through their own reforms, drives a coach and horses through the space any strategy might have existed.

It’s very exciting for people like me who have gone on about how existing commissioning levers can be used to level the playing field for smaller, particularly voluntary sector organisations. Admittedly, people like me tend to need to get out more, but we’re in for some fun and games if DfE and/or Labour really try to do what they say they will.


DPULOs and public service delivery

At the start of the Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisation Programme (on which more here) I wrote an article that unfortunately wasn’t published. (I’ve never been renowned for my engaging writing style, it has to be said.) Following Peter Beresford’s thoughts on the same topic, below is that article on disabled people’s user-led organisations and their role in service delivery (one of the many facets of things they do).

Organisations which are run by and for disabled people should play a vital role in providing important services that enable disabled people to have choice and control over their lives.

The reason for this follows from a very simple premise: with their experience as service users, disabled people are often best-placed to know what they want from organisations and so are best-placed to run them.

This is a crucial time for disabled people and their organisations.  As well as some under-representation of people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, disabled people’s user-led organisations (DPULOs) have been seen mainly within the context of adult social care over the last few years. This is to miss the difference they can and do make in many areas of life.  DPULOs should be central in addressing issues like disability hate crime, in securing the representation of disabled people in health and social care through local HealthWatch organisations, and in encouraging a greater uptake of Access to Work (recently called the government’s “best kept secret”).

The new Strengthening DPULOs Programme provides a range of practical and financial support to address the challenges DPULOs face and make them stronger and more sustainable for the future. The Programme includes 12 Ambassadors who will champion DPULOs in their local areas, influencing commissioners across the public sector to recognise and value the contribution DPULOs make.

Similarly, experts – drawn from a variety of different backgrounds – will support DPULOs (when they ask for it) to translate the “what” they want to do into the “how” to do it.

Lastly, a £3million Facilitation Fund will provide some financial resource to DPULOs that they otherwise could not easily secure for things that will make a difference to their strength and sustainability.

The Government’s recent Open Public Services White Paper was a clear articulation of its aims for reforming public services. It called for greater diversity in the mix of providers to deliver different types of services: by the private, independent and voluntary sectors, as well as by mutual and employee-owned organisations (so-called “John Lewis”-type organisations).

Disabled people’s user-led organisations should be a part of that mix. Not only this, but DPULOs also have a role as a representative voice of disabled people at a grass-roots level, influencing and lobbying at a local, regional and national level. They can also raise expectations and change attitudes when it comes to disability equality more broadly.

The main value that DPULOs can add is that of legitimacy and credibility, based on a fundamental understanding of the lived experience of their members and clients that other organisations don’t have in the same way.

As with the voluntary sector more broadly, the question of independence is one that comes up regularly: can a DPULO delivering a service under contract to a local authority, or one that receives ongoing grant funding, bite the hand that feeds it? It’s a question the recently convened Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector will be grappling with. In gathering their evidence, they may want to take on board the perspectives of members or Trustees of DPULOs up and down the country who navigate this day-to-day complexity with passion, determination and nous.

As well as being the authentic representative voice of disabled people at a grass-roots level, DPULOs can play a vital part in the public service reform agenda. Amongst the undoubted challenges that they and their members face, DPULOs should also seize the opportunities the reform agenda presents.

The £3m Programme is one means by which this can be realised: it is up to all of us who demand disability equality to ensure the opportunity is taken.

Man walks into a column, no.28: Ideology

When launching Monday’s Open Public Services White Paper, Mr Cameron said ‘It is not about ideology. It is about the best way of getting things done’. This left me wondering whether the White Paper had too much ideology or too little, and either way why ‘ideology’ has become something politicians want to distance themselves from as much as humanly possible.

First, let’s clear up some terminology. Dictionary definitions of ‘ideology’ include ‘a system of ideas and ideals, esp. one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy’, a ‘set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations and actions’, and ‘the ideas and manner of thinking of a group, social class or individual’.

Should this kind of White Paper be ideological, then, based on these definitions of the term, irrespective of whether it actually is? The Coalition makes clear that this is a ‘comprehensive policy framework’ but also, essentially, an agenda: because of the need to engage, consult and, y’know, listen the paper also outlines a range of ‘wider ambitions’ where the Government will consult over the next few months.

Policy frameworks and ambitions… sounds pretty ideological to me. Then there’s the joint Cameron/Clegg foreword, which is not so much ideological as fervent: ‘the forces which restrict opportunity for some inflict an injury on all’ and ‘every pair of idle hands, every mind left uncultivated, is a burden on all society as well as a weight on our conscience’. The overriding tone of the whole document could be summed up with the distinctly ideological phrase ‘power to the people’.

And actually I think this kind of agenda setting is an entirely appropriate focus for a White Paper of this nature. It’s not a White Paper about a specific sector or policy issue, it articulates the values, principles and underpinnings for the whole of the public service system.

So what’s the problem with ‘ideology’, then? Why when this clearly is and indeed should be an ‘ideological’ document is Cameron making such a point of saying it isn’t? When did ideology become such a tainted term, synonymous – it seems from the PM – with the dreaded ‘dogma’ (‘The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best – it’s gone’ he said)?

In this context specifically what Cameron means when he says this is ‘not about ideology’ is ‘this is not about us having an ideological preference for private sector companies taking over public services’ – in response to problems with Southern Cross and other companies messing up. They do, however, have an ‘ideological preference’ that provision of public services should be opened up to providers from more than one sector, principally in order to boost citizen choice.

More broadly what Cameron means is that Whitehall should not be dogmatically telling local areas what’s best for them. That’s fine in principle, but in order to make this work in practice the Government will need to do at least two things. First it will need to fulfil its side of the bargain, and resist the urge to squish local solutions that run contrary to its preferences (and there are plenty of examples, especially in local government, of this not holding true – the so-called ‘Pickles effect’).

Second, the Coalition needs to provide or at least facilitate support and capacity building for key local actors to step up. Commissioners need help in incorporating choice, diversity and a fuller appreciation of ‘value’ into their procurement decisions. Local politicians need support in order to become the ‘community champions’ the White Paper envisages. And local staff and residents need substantive reassurance that if they take a risk and try to take over running a public service, local and national government will be on their side. As far as I’m concerned, being ideological is not the same as being dogmatic: it’s about knowing where you stand.