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.


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.

Challenging mutuals (and policy-based evidence)

The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) has published a report this week called “Proof of Delivery: A review of the role of co-operatives and mutuals in local public service provision”

In an article in the Guardian summarising their report, APSE’s chief executive writes:

Apse believes co-operatives and mutuals can have a valuable role in running services and that, where appropriate, this should be supported by local government.

So far, so good.

But we want public sector decision-makers to properly weigh up the tangible outcomes of transferring work to co-ops and mutuals before making decisions concerning the future of local service delivery.

You can probably guess where it’s going as soon as that “but” appeared. And, indeed, it goes in that direction pretty quickly, using “but” once again:

But while enthusiasts assume that communities will be galvanised and staff motivation will soar as a result of this model, decisions involving large sums of public money require a solid, evidence-based approach.

It just so happens, of course, that APSE has done the research to determine what the evidence tells us. And what it tells us is that there is

a paucity of evidence to back up claims about the supposed benefits [as to whether] co-ops and mutuals could provide local public services more effectively and at better value.

They conclude that collaboration between the third sector and the public sector must exist in order to deliver public services, noting a complex combination of factors must be in place to sustain this collaborative model. Such factors include enough time to see the benefits and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders (including staff, Councillors, citizens and service users).

Where this conclusion, to some extent, bears out the findings of, say, the King’s Fund’s recent research on social enterprises, there is a notable air of scepticism from APSE about co-operatives and mutuals, which is to be expected from an organisation whose business is based around supporting local authority front line services.

I don’t share their scepticism, and there’s a bit of their argument I’m not so sure about.

What politics allows for is not always evidence-based policy, but sometimes policy-based evidence. If politicians deem something to be valuable – because of ideology, circumstance or some other reason – then, to some extent, actual evidence is neither here nor there.

When it comes to mutuals and co-operatives at the moment, the support from politicians is there. Whilst APSE are welcome to be sceptical, I’m with the politicians on this one.

Quango merger quango

The news came last week that the cost of setting up the Equality & Human Rights Commission was £39m. As well as criticising the cost of the creation of the EHRC from the 3 existing equality commissions (disability, gender and race), the Committee of Public Accounts also said that the organisation itself wasn’t ready for business with key business areas still needing work.

According to the committee, the process for creating the EHRC was ‘patently flawed’.

I worked for the Disability Rights Commission in the 18 months leading up to the merger and at the EHRC itself for around 8 weeks. Indeed, I was there on day, as this post attests. It would thus be quite wrong of me to say whether or not the Committee’s findings are a fair reflection or not, since I contributed a small part to the transition process and know many of the individuals well who were heavily involved.

My experience of the merger, however, led me to an idea at the time that I still think now would be useful: some form of team or body within central government that can advise or lead the process of mergers within the public sector.

The thinking is simple: the process of merging organisations is hugely complex, but once you’ve been through it once, there is a huge amount of experience you could use if you had to do it again. However, you wouldn’t want to negate the ‘local’ experience and knowledge that comes from staff within existing bodies. This is effectively the business case for using consultants in such scenarios.

Thus, instead of bringing in often expensive organisational design or merger consultants, a team could sit within the public sector – possibly, say, within the Cabinet Office – and support such transitions. Such a team could even be formalised to be a quango in itself, advising on the merging etc. of quangos.

To take the time at which the EHRC was created: at that same time, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) was also being created from merging together the Healthcare Commission, the Commision for Social Care Inspection, and the Mental Health Act Commission. I suspect many of the same issues that came up in the forming of the EHRC arose during the CQC merger, and invaluable lessons could have been applied to save both time and money, and ensure the new body was effective from day one.

Over the next spending period, it is inevitable that quangos and all sorts of public bodies will merge or have their responsibilities moved to another body. A quango merger quango (I suggest this name only half tongue-in-cheek) would be a cost-effective way of ensuring the lessons from the creation of the EHRC and other such bodies can be applied in every new such scenario.