Modernising Commissioning: Is the Big Society bringing any clarity to the debate?

In December 2010, the Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office published its Green consultation Paper  ‘Modernising Commissioning: Increasing the role of charities, social enterprises, mutuals and cooperatives in public service delivery as part of their commitment to promote a ‘greater involvement’ of these actors ‘in the running of public services’. This consultation will be a core base to the Public Service Reform White Paper to be published this month and fits in the wider Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill. This consultation paper is part of the unfolding of the Big Society agenda.

This consultation which ran from December 7th 2010 until January 5th, relates to the issue of integrating these ‘civil society organisations’ (CSOs) and Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) into the running of public services, elaborating on concerns of participation to the delivery and bid for public service contracts. It outlines the benefits to public services of a greater involvement of these actors: better value by turning to the best possible provider with specialised skills and know-how in the domain; satisfaction of the public through a decreased risk of service failure,   greater involvement in the delivery of these services and effort to ‘reach’ disadvantaged groups.

This commitment to an increased role of CSOs in the delivery of public services fits into the wider ‘Big Society’ project of loosening the ‘provider’ role of central and local government and opening up a space for an empowered  and ‘ flourishing civil society’ to shape its own public services. It also concurs with the £80bn spending cuts announced in the October 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), ‘[enabling] commissioners to drive and implement [these] cuts in fully informed ways, removing unnecessary duplications and responding to local priorities.’(p.6)

Some of the immediate reactions of charities and CSOs to this consultation related to the limited four and a half week time frame set for these actors to add to the debate, in breach of the 12-week period set by the Compact, making it, according to NCVO chief Stuart Etherington, ‘virtually impossible for either of our organisations or the government to meaningfully consult’.

Some major issues are outlined in this paper as regards to the accessibility of CSOs and SMEs to the delivery of public services although the solutions do not seem to be clearly stated yet. Firstly, a new system of payment by result will start coexisting with the more classical system. This new scheme echoes the Social Impact Bond pilot introduced for charities involved in projects of reoffending reduction. What this new outcomes-focused scheme seems to underestimate is the greater risk that it involves, especially for small, local, specialised CSOs that will not have the necessary ‘strength’ to take on such hazard. Charities that focus on marginalised groups such as Crisis (working with homeless people) call for measures such as starter payment and additional premiums in order to curb that risk. This system also seems to underestimate the more holistic outcomes aimed by the third sector’s work in public services. ‘Softer’ outcomes such as self-esteem building amongst socially excluded individuals might be hard to measure and such projects could be penalised by this system that, except for its name, strongly resembles a target-based approach.

A right to challenge local authorities will be introduced by the Localism Bill, giving CSOs and public service workers the opportunity to make local governments accountable for their choices. The latter will be challenged where it is believed that they could provide services differently or better.

Also problematic is the issue of capacity-building for CSOs in order to help them engage in the commissioning process and make commissioners aware of the diversity of providers. This capacity-building role, played by local voluntary and community support and development organisation (LSDOs), is said to be crucial by CSOs but undergoing drastic cuts and uncertain funding after April 2011.

The bridge-building role between communities and commissioners that CSOs are asked to play might nonetheless be contradicted by the payment by result system or inflexible accessibility criteria such as the contract length and funding conditions.

Indeed, although recognising the importance of access to finance, initiatives such as the Big Society Bank appear for the least embryonic: ‘The Big Society Bank will be financed by all the funding made available to England from UK dormant accounts. The amount […], however, is difficult to predict.’

This unresolved financial issue is even more series when combined with the spending cuts announced by the CSR. Alliances of VCOs (Voluntary and Community Organisations) such as Leeds Third Sector were told by their local authority that their funding will be cut. On the other side of the scope, local authorities across England are being asked to facilitate the involvement of third sector organisations in the commissioning process. Lambeth Council has estimated such an initiative will cost £165000 and take six years to achieve.

In a time of financial austerity and increased difficulties faced by communities – redundancies, growing debts, rising prices – are the conditions gathered for a successful transformation of public service delivery?

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