Yesterday I was lucky enough to chair Transforming Commissioning: Levelling Up and Community Investment, a Third Sector Commissioning conference from Westminster Insights. It was one of those events where (all credit to the organisers), each of the speakers had a hugely high proportion of powerful, crisp messages in their very short slots, and the audience were engaged and well-informed.
Here are my rough notes from the wrapup at the end of the day, attempting to summarise some of those very rich messages.
Credit to the speakers is at the end; you can consider that the good ideas in here come from them, and bad interpretations are all mine.
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First, and above all, commissioning that privileged the competitive incentive above all others probably is dead, or certainly deserves to die – we should be seeing competition as one of the very powerful (and risky) tools in the toolkit.
The reality is that twelve years of austerity has left us with a great deal of damage. We heard that civil society – at least organised civil society – is weakest where it’s most needed.
The old saw of fragmented funding comes up every time the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector gathers – and comes up every time local government gathers.
And yesterday I heard about Public Health England not yet having a 2022-23 budget with which to carry out it’s critical NHS workforce planning role. And about NHS capital funding; announced on December 24, and absolutely needs to be spent before 1 April.
There’s a risk this becomes the background noise, the water we swim in. But we need to take this seriously.
The HUGE cost and friction of current funding mechanisms isn’t just ‘something the recipients like to moan about’. It’s an actual economically demonstrable disincentive to value.
If you wanted to design a system to stymie all the good things we are seeking from ‘levelling up’, you would design it this way.
This is of a piece with the absolute fragmentation of coordination across the sector – or perhaps I want to say the fragmentation of coherence – the ‘institutional clutter’, the ‘pinball referrals’, the lack of joining-up which creates a negative multiplier on spend, impact, and citizen experience.
Nevertheless, there’s still a deep strength even in the most deprived, most under-invested communities.
Amongst many philosophical reflections and aphorisms, Will Balakrishnan of the Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime in London challenged us: “Ask yourself – are you the prisoner of your experience?”
I think that’s particularly relevant in the context of fragmentation, and of lack of civil society organisations where they’re most needed.
Another theme – and the antidote to fragmentation – is relationships.
This is all about relationships – relationships between levels of government, levels and peers of the community and voluntary sector, and between citizens and ‘providers’ (and between citizens themselves – especially when you consider a starting point of ‘we are all citizens’.
It’s easy to get carried away and think ‘relationships’ is all about sweetness and light and connections.
Relationships are NOT just a love-in – I mean, have you ever been in a relationship?
Good relationships are robust, challenging, they provoke growth.
Will reduced all of commissioning to three questions:
1. What is life like now for people?
2. How is it changing?
3. How might it change if we do things differently?
And added two provocations:
- Imagine there are no services
- How do we make space for conversation?
This relational underpinning to commissioning and to voluntary and community sector investment and whatever ‘levelling up’ means is critical.
We heard two really great comparable challenges:
- This should be about paying forward, not in arrears, from Kathy Evans of Children England
- And an exhortation to focus on measurable outcomes as a way of bringing the fragmentation together, from Andreaa Anastasiu of the Government Outcomes Lab
This will feed in to the balance of story and data later, but I want to make the point that this relates to relationships too. A transactional relationship can never focus on the bigger picture.
Governance – another word for relationships – also emerged as a really critical issue – and like other forms of assets it needs to be built up (in advance) – and can be measured by trust.
Learning and adaptation came through as really critical – a sector with people literally leaving because they are worried about the ‘precarity’ of their own jobs, with 30% of the effort and cost going into bidding, managing, measuring and reporting (my own illustrative figure) – who has time to learn?
At the heart of this is the UK as one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.
There was a strong push to better connect the grassroots with the national policy agenda, which is always ‘playing catch-up with what’s on the ground’.
Part of this is that MPs and Councillors have to spend some time connecting to community and the voluntary, community, and social enterprise sector. But civil servants don’t. Give them opportunities for secondments, visits, deeper, embodied understanding.
They are bright, well-intentioned people and they are listening. There was particular praise for the government’s response to the procurement green paper responses – ‘hey, it looks like they actually listened!’
The question was put to VCSE attendees: “What do you know about the system that no-one else knows?”
How can you use your insight at the grass roots level (at the level of the reality of people’s lives!) to break through – to confront people with human, electoral, economic realities – that changes perspectives, mindsets, and policies.
The really good news, as we heard from Matt Whittaker of Pro Bono Economics, reinforced by real data from many others, is that the economic and social pictures are aligned and clear:
- Moving money to the local pays back better
- For every £1 into social infrastructure, c63p is re-spent locally (using the Calderdale case study from Sian Rogers at Calderdale Council and Rachel Bentley of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies)
- And you get £3.20 back in the following decade – it regenerates places
So civil society spend not only has a massive impact on civil society where it’s most needed, it also gives a massive economic boost.
And we had a reminder – how easily we give up on this – early intervention and prevention offer us enormous value!!
Not to mention that, just perhaps, we should be thinking about key services – especially services for children – not as a luxury but as a huge investment. If ‘schools should be cathedrals’, is it really right that we might recoil in horror at the idea of accidentally over-investing in children? God forbid we might ‘gold-plate’ anyone’s pre-school experience…
Furthermore, investment in civil society can shift core services (as Calderdale showed).
And you get an extra multiplier on these effects if you work with organisations led by and for minoritised communities.
The bottom line is: attempts at transforming economic context succeed when there is the right community and social context.
Matt Whitaker pointed out to use that the WELBY measure – ‘wellbeing adjusted year of life’ – is now in Treasury mainstream Green Book guidance – so let’s use !
(And the Treasury has the Magenta Book for complex evaluation)
So certain parts of government still ‘need persuading’ about the benefits of devolving spend and the ‘efficiency’ of the community and voluntary sector – but even their own evidence is pretty clear – so let’s use it.
So changing mindsets from thinking about individual activities (fragmented) to thinking about outcomes – and gathering data and evidence – is critical. We need to articulate the cause by better articulating the value – to get to a place where “you can’t be a serious politician and talk about building a better UK without talking about civil society”.
One really big takeaway for commissioners from all this is – despite all the pressures – to really play an active market stewardship role – understand your provider market role, and really thinking about the relationships you are involved in and shaping.
This, inevitably, means investment. And that includes – especially with covid – making sure core funding includes funding for sector resilience and wellbeing.
It also means seeing the bigger system of which we are a small part, understanding that ‘giving away power’ is just a myth – that if we see ourselves as a small influential part of a bigger thing, we can go much further.
There was an inspiring belief in the power of local authorities.
Despite facing the greatest struggle of resource and capacity ever – lots of positive things can happen locally, particularly in partnerships between the sectors locally.
The rallying cry here was to build the infrastructure to take things out of the hands of central government. To build that core economy, abundant economy, based on relationships and people connected with each other, not on the scarcity of goods and things.
At the same conference last year, I gave a talk on ‘commissioning is dead – long live commissioning’ (a favourite topic since at least 2012). The ‘commissioning cycle’ which puts procurement at the heat of commissioning deserves to die.
As we are slowly moving out of the equivalent of a wartime footing with the pandemic, the hope for the future is in continuity of funding, building local governance capacity and relationships, and building community power in which the public sector plays a constructive role.
Speakers at the event were:
- Andreea Anastasiu, Senior Policy and Engagement Officer, Government Outcomes Lab (University of Oxford)
- Vidhya Alakeson OBE , CEO, Power to Change
- Matt Whittaker, CEO, Pro Bono Economics
- Will Balakrishnan, Director of Commissioning and Partnerships at Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC)
- Rachel Bentley, Associate Director, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)
- Sian Rogers, Policy & Projects Manager, lead for Voluntary and Community Sector, Calderdale Council
- David Holmes CBE, CEO, Family Action
- Kathy Evans, Chief Executive, Children England