The language of the market has distorted strategic commissioning
Procurement and contracting with the VCS is an option, but should never be the default choice While preparing to speak at a conference on the third sector and commissioning this week, I was struck by the extent to which practitioners and policymakers appear to have swallowed
wholesale the ideological and “new public management” mantra of markets and marketisation, or decided that this is now the norm and the only game in town.
This led me to ponder why we (especially those of us in the voluntary and community sector) have allowed the language and practice of the market to distort and discredit strategic commissioning.
When the concept was first introduced, strategic commissioning was always intended to be about something more noble and important than simply buying or contracting public services. It was expected to encompass:
Identifying and assessing needs and aspirations.
Allocating scarce and valuable resources to maximise outcomes based on addressing
these needs and aspirations.
Identifying and evaluating the options for addressing these needs and aspirations
within the available resources.
Adopting an agreed option.
Continuously monitoring and reviewing performance and impact.
Making consequential adjustments to ensure not only that the impact is being
maximised, but also that the right outcomes are being pursued (noting that these can and will
change over time and as a result of experience).
Obviously, procurement and contracting with either the business or the VCS might or might
not be an option for consideration. However, it should never be the default option.
If the public sector wishes to engage the VCS in delivering a service, whether wholly or
partially, there is no legal obligation to deploy competitive tendering. It can do so through a
relational partnership approach, and it can use grants. Of course, it should set output and
outcome targets, but should not be dealing with the VCS (especially small local VCS groups)
or social enterprises as though it is letting a major multimillion-pound contract to a global
The fact is that strategic commissioning objectives can be met in a variety of ways that do not
necessarily have to involve markets, competitive tendering and complex contracts. These
range from public in-house provision to partnerships with the VCS, behavioural change
programmes, regulation and beyond. There are many options besides competitive
procurement and resultant outsourcing.
The VCS should be making this argument loudly and boldly. It should also be making the
case for its own role in strategic commissioning, as well as rebutting those who will respond
that such involvement compromises objectivity. It does not. Rather, it can enhance
commissioning and lead to better outcomes.
I suggest that at the national and local levels the VCS should make the case for being
recognised and respected by commissioners and commissioning bodies as a voice of service
users and communities, complementing representatives such as elected politicians and acting
as a source of expertise in service design and delivery, and advocating for service users.
The VCS and its representative local bodies (such as infrastructure bodies) should also lobby
to be involved in all stages of strategic commissioning and consulted on budgeting and
When and if services are outsourced, the VCS can play an important role in speaking up for
service users, as well as monitoring performance and the client side.
Above all, public confidence in outsourcing and the marketisation of public services is falling
after several major failures, including the collapse of Carillion and the termination of
outsourcing of the probation service.
I detect increasing signs of a retreat from wholesale outsourcing: the aforementioned
probation service is a good example. Several local authorities and other public bodies also
appear to be breaking out of the competitive contracting straitjacket and mindset, though I
accept they are still very much in the minority.
The VCS must work to support this shift in stance to gain further momentum. Specifically,
we must demonstrate that we can offer viable solutions, but usually do this better when not
subject to competitive tendering and when we are treated and respected as genuine strategic
We might have a desire to challenge competitive tendering and marketisation, but it is
understandable why many in the VCS are worried by speaking out against what can
sometimes be the only source of revenue and/or the only means of meeting or partially
meeting the needs of beneficiaries. I suspect this often leads the sector to spend too much
time and energy in pursuit of making a dysfunctional system work a tad better. Indeed, when
I was invited to speak at the conference, I am sure the organisers expected me to focus on
improving the system and process.
However, I believe that we have now gone beyond this point and have to challenge and
demand a new system based on the public service ethos, not simply on the market. This has
to be an easier call for the VCS member bodies than it is for individual VCS groups, which
are reliant on public sector funding. It follows that membership infrastructure bodies, both
locally and nationally, need to step up to the plate and decide how to proceed.