Commissioning has got to stop!

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Cartoon of stressed-looking woman at a desk scattered with papersIn late 2011, a major metropolitan borough council advertised two invitations to tender for their adult social care advocacy and carers support services at the same time, consultation was in parallel and the results announced together within one joint budget. Important aspects were not consulted on, for example, that competitive tendering would be the route by which contracts were re-let, and the decision to accept only one single contract holder for each service.

This story is about the procurement process and its impact. Historically the council gave grant aid to a number of voluntary agencies to provide advocacy support. Their funding was withdrawn to create the budget for the ‘new’ service, putting the viability of the smaller groups in jeopardy.

Kevin, a local consultant, says: “the ‘we’ in this context is a multipurpose community development agency working in the area. The agency convened consultation meetings with the local sector to say ‘what do you all want to do about this?’ and offered to act as a lead agency for a bid. This would create a way in which local groups could work together and bid for the contract. This agency stumped up the money from their own resources to do the development work that was necessary to work up a bid and see if we could secure funding to protect these local agencies. I got taken on as the consultant to do the leg work.”

Kevin says: “We started with the agencies whose funding was withdrawn. One agency was off the scene and a second said they had already decided that they were going to work with another organisation to put together a rival bid. We said that having two local bids weakens both of them and can we not agree for all of us together to work on one unified local bid? They refused. We were left with eight agencies as our initial bid group.”

There was no evidence that the council had done any serious needs assessment or provider mapping. Kevin says: “we did it ourselves”. Out of that a group of thirteen provider agencies was built covering all aspects of the service specification including gaps in provision not covered by the original bid group of eight.

The formal procurement phase was a “free for all”. Kevin says: “There were problems before getting to the Pre-Qualifying Questionnaire.” The local authority’s demographic information was very approximate and out of date. “We did our own which took a lot of my time,” says Kevin. There was “sheer incompetence on the part of council officers across the board. The direct dial number for information in the advert was wrong, for example – a tiny thing but irritating. In contrast, and massively important, there were three different tender adverts with three different budget figures given.”

Kevin “spoke to the principal commissioning officer on the phone about the budget because their behaviour was not Compact-compliant. The Compact that they signed in the borough, one of the council commitments is that they will publish the budgets available.” The officer said: “Oh, I’ve been meaning to get familiar with the Compact…  I’ll get back to you.” That never happened. Kevin took the issue to the local CVS and said “what you going to do about this? I want to keep our name out of this because if they see us making a fuss about this we’ll be off the tender listease ligh serious to intervene. e commissioning of services within adult social care. d group of eight..” Kevin never heard anything more from them either.

The CVS, Kevin says: “had accepted an invitation to sit as representatives of the voluntary sector on the personalisation board, a Member-led body, overseeing this whole tendering process. A condition of that was they agreed to be bound by council confidentiality. They said ‘we can take your representations to the Board but we can’t tell you what happened as a result.’ ”

Kevin says that the procurement process “is all done by officers and that means that councillors whose decision it is to let these contracts are entirely in the hands of officers’ recommendations and are in no position to form a view of their own about who might be the best contender.”

“We did the tender. It was an unbelievable amount of work,” says Kevin. National Agencies have got big departments dealing with tenders and they were angling for this contract. Three of them got shortlisted for the advocacy service. Kevin says: “This whole commissioning process favours large organisations and they’re cleaning up around the country.”

In contrast, the local bid group hadn’t done anything like this before. However, the group were “just delighted” with the final tender document they produced and proud of the service that they proposed. Kevin says: “Despite the fact that we didn’t get the contract, one of the positives that’s come out of this whole experience is the resurrection of collaborative working relationships between the agencies concerned. They were keen to act non-competitively, to share work, to learn together, to build something collectively. We encouraged that and we all loved it. Mind you, the transaction costs were huge. I wouldn’t be surprised if it came to something like 40 thousand quid if we added up everyone’s time.”

Kevin says: “When we’ve done the post-mortem I think what the group’s going to be saying is ‘can we keep this going? This joint working is such a gas that we want to find other things that we can do together.’ ”

What worries Kevin is “the damage that’s being done to the professional service-providing part of the voluntary sector, people having been forced to compete with each other, having to shift their own and their own communities aspirations into a shape that is approved by the Local Authority, all  very tightly specified. The pressure on price is extreme. I suspect that the winning bid is the winning bid because it was the lowest bid.”

Kevin feels angry and depressed. But he says: “It’s affection and respect for the group I’ve been working with, that’s what will keep me going.” Kevin says: “Commissioning must stop. The statutory sector should pay more attention to respecting the experience and expertise of the voluntary sector and they should pay attention to building partnerships that actuallydo give an effective voice to the embedded voluntary sector.“

Kevin was talking to Nazreen Subhan.

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