Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Commissioning for....Mediocrity

Today I stared from the lecturn at a sea of faces from the public sector. Commissioners of public services. All there to hear about why they should buy more stuff from the third sector. Some faces were clearly up for it. Others looked ready for their long and lucrative retirements. There was willingness, interest even but also a heavy sense that this wasn't going to be easy.

Don't get me wrong, I like Commissioners. The better ones are real social visionaries. They see the power in their hands to improve society. In short, good commissioner is like a fantastic chef. Combining the ingredients, bossing the show with flair and confidence. The really great ones listen to the experts, give clear signals to the market then commission for outcomes. They recognise the need for profit and for everyone to win.

Today's event, however, captured just how far commissioning has to go in this country. Most of those I had lunch with had landed in their jobs from other public sector occupations. Most of them learn as they go along but do things their own way. No learning from the `greats' of commissioning. No standard texts. Just get on with it.

The results are predictable. We now have probably one of the least effective public sector procurement systems in the developed world. Hence all this `smarter commissioning' stuff we're all being wheeled out to promote. But its not enough. This event, sadly, is like prescribing Nurofen for a brain tumour.

Why am I so wrought about all this? Well, its boring stuff but procurement contains within it the seeds of success or failure of public spending. Billions is spent on social need in this country. Nearly a hundred billion on the bottom few percent when you add it all up. Yet the social problems persist. Indeed, we probably have the most expensive social problems in the world when you look at all the money that has gone on maintaining them.

While, of course, you can't blame commissioners for this - they follow a policy direction which is broadly set for them - you can safely say that poor commissioning plays a big role.

So what's the answer? Three things. Externalising certain commissioning is one. Its a specialism. Done well it can transform lives and save billions of pounds. Commissioning for outcomes is another. This is what happens in the best bits of the private sector. The deliverables are specified but nothing else. Finally, pick the right people and make it into a proper job. We need stronger people in these jobs than we have now.

Therefore, I am not optimistic for surge in commissioning from the third sector. It will take a lot more than retraining and a few seminars I know that.

1 comment:

Rob Greenland said...

Great post Craig. Good to read some frank reflections on what can be a soul destroying affair. But as you say the potential for what could be achieved if the State became a better shopper is immense. So let's hope a few of those in the audience really grasped what you had to say and start to show the way forward for the others. Similarly, social businesses need to get better at selling to commissioners. I know it's all easier said than done, but it's good that you're saying it for starters.