Three things that small charities want to say about commissioning

Lots has been written about commissioning, much of it focused on big national projects, much of it focused on failure. This article is focused on the local and the small. The first thing to say is that this is not a criticism, we understand the funding constraints that local government are under, we understand that at the heart of it local government workers and local councillors are as passionate about people and communities as we in the community and charity sector are. But before you write that paper or take that vote please give these three points some thought.

1 Commissioning is ultimately about people and communities.

The paper you are writing or voting on about the latest commissioning proposal might be motivated by finding savings or rationalising delivery. But ultimately it is about people and their wellbeing. What you decide will make an impact (positively or negatively) on people and communities. Small charities and community groups are integral to the health of communities and the people who live in them. Local services add value whoever they are delivered by. When thinking about commissioning you need to think how your decisions will impact on the wider community and not just about how a service in isolation will look.

2 Is commissioning really the best way to deliver?

Can better results be achieved through grants or controversially by delivering services in house. There is a growing recognition that contracts are not always the best way forward. Whether this is down to the collapse of Carillion nationally, the failure of some large charities like 4Children or Lifeline who aggressively pursued contracts or more locally with the demise of Uniting Care Partnership, there is a move to look at alternatives. Much has been written about the benefits of grants, not least in the fact that it shares some of the risk between the charitable sector and the statutory sector. Grants can increase innovation, as you are not as likely to stipulate a model of working and it leaves small groups to adapt to local circumstances. Grants to small groups will bring value added as often they utilise volunteers to enable better value, or they are able to help with associated issues rather than just tick the contractual box.

3 If you are commissioning be inclusive.

Sometimes commissioning will be the best or only way to proceed, and if this is the case then everything needs to be done to be inclusive to smaller local participants. The move to bigger contracts may seem to offer better value but often this is a false economy, and at the same time bundling contracts into a bigger package means smaller more specialist local providers may be unable to bid as they can not take on the whole contract. Social value should be given its rightful place in deciding on the contract, this is a legal requirement and helps non-profit providers demonstrate the added value they are often able to bring to delivering a service. Finally, if you are commissioning please do not ask providers to jump through excessive hoops, this will disadvantage smaller organisations without the experienced commissioning teams and means many great providers fall at the first hurdle. The law has to be adhered to, but sometimes legal teams are so risk adverse that their interpretation can exclude the best providers.

There are good examples of commissioning and good examples of where commissioning has been avoided in favour of different funding models. We believe that local delivery by not for profit organisations has many advantages; it keeps the money spent in the local economy; it adds social value through the use of volunteers and fundraising; it invests all the money into delivering the service and not delivering a return to shareholders; it contributes to healthy and resilient communities. In short we want all those who decide on how to deliver services to remember these three things

  • If you have to commission do it in a way that enables smaller local providers.
  • Think carefully if there is a better alternative to commissioning
  • In all your deliberations remember the impact will affect the lives of real people and the communities they, and you, live and work in.

Please contact mark@cambridgecvs.org.uk if you would like to discuss this further.

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