Viewpoint: Commissioners need to think smaller

A new report for Lloyds Bank Foundation has found a commissioning process that is excluding smaller charities and consequently struggling to provide the services that are needed to the people that need them. Paul Streets explains.

Commissioning in Crisis. That’s the name of a report we’ve just launched at Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales. We didn’t set out to write a crisis report, but the evidence we collected suggests that’s exactly what we have.

As those of you involved in commissioning social welfare services know, it’s tough. Demand is going up. Resources are going down. All too often the ‘Barnet graph of doom’ is wheeled out in presentations, illustrating the depth of the challenges faced by local authorities. If commissioning is a way to secure the right services, at the right time and for the right price; there has arguably never been a more important time to get it right. So what is going wrong? Why is commissioning in crisis? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

Our latest research points the finger firmly at the marginalisation of smaller charities as the chief cause for concern. As our short flyer demonstrates, these charities have typically delivered vital services in communities across the country for many years. They’ve done so with little fanfare, adapting to changing needs and reducing funds to ensure they can deliver services to people at risk who other agencies have failed to reach.

Evidence shows that these small, locally embedded, charities that are trusted in the communities they serve are being severely disadvantaged if not shut out completely from commissioning processes which favour scale over all else. Sadly, this isn’t a case of a few bad apples. The breadth and depth of the challenge facing small charities is staggering. Charities that have the solutions to so many of our toughest problems are either prevented from bidding through specifications which exclude them or are severely disadvantaged by commissioning processes set against them.

We know commissioners themselves are under pressure with reduced budgets and staff teams but too often charities tell us that complex and disproportionate systems are compounding the challenge of an already difficult process.

The purpose of our report isn’t to point the finger at individual commissioners but to shine a spotlight on how the whole system is failing. Our report delves into the detail of the challenges, in order to determine how they can be overcome.

The good news is that none of them are insurmountable. And neither do they require huge new investments with money that doesn’t exist. What they do require is change at every level: from the commissioners on the ground in local areas to central government policy makers.

We need local government to engage local charities in consultation processes, and to make use of those with the knowledge and experience of delivering services on the ground. No one expects commissioners to have in depth knowledge of every service area they are working on, not when most cover a remit as wide as health and social care. What we need are commissioners who recognise the expertise small charities may have and for them to use this as the starting point to ensure services are commissioned at a scale that works both for the service and those best equipped to deliver it.

Recognising the wider social value that can be achieved by working with smaller charities can also bring the long-term value that the public purse so desperately needs. In essence, the solutions to solving so many commissioning problems lie in common sense and proportionality.

For local commissioners, we understand that often your hands are tied. That’s why it’s essential that central government frameworks empower local commissioners and why our report includes recommendations for all those involved in commissioning, including policymakers. As a funder, we’re supporting charities to better respond to commissioning but if we are to ensure that services can reach those who need help most, the processes that surround these bids have to change too.

Paul Streets is Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation. www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk

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