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Commissioning Academy: Five years on and thriving

Writing on behalf of the Public Service Transformation Academy, a not-for-profit organisation established to deliver a not-for-profit organisation established to deliver the Cabinet Office's Commissioning Academy, Richard Field reflects on the success of the Commissioning Academy so far.

This summer the Commissioning Academy is five years old; a time to reflect, celebrate and look forward. Since 2012, 55 academies have hosted more than 1,400 participants drawn from local authorities, health, central government and many other organisations. Across the land participants have benefitted in a variety of ways, each according to their prior knowledge and experience, operating context, individual ambition and opportunities. The following feedback from academy participants is typical: 

The high-quality learning provided by the Commissioning Academy enabled me to help my organisation become much more effective at both a strategic and operational level.” – CEO, local authority 

The Commissioning Academy reinforced the need to be brave and focus on needs and outcomes rather than services, and our resulting action plan has more than delivered.” – Local authority 

More specifically, academy participants report increased clarity about key principles of commissioning and that their thinking has shifted in terms of what commissioning is and could be. The range of academy content is such that many participants are introduced to new ideas associated with commissioning, such as co-production and asset-based practice. Increased competence and confidence results in participants who are prepared and able to challenge thinking in their own organisation, and energised to make a difference. 

Organisations, which typically sponsor two or more participants to attend an academy, also benefit in terms of having a cadre of staff with a shared understanding of commissioning who are both equipped and motivated to prompt organisational development. As part of the academy, small groups are required to develop plans designed to tackle a commissioning challenge during the 100 days following the academy. In excess of 350 such plans have been developed to date. Sponsors recognise the benefits of the academy, as below: 

The Commissioning Academy is helping us to adopt radical new approaches to commissioning.” – Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 

Further tangible evidence of the value of the academy can be seen in the number of organisations that send further staff to the central academy or indeed invest in local academies. 

Why is the Commissioning Academy successful?

That the Commissioning Academy is still running after five years is testament to its success. As is the fact that it is now run without subsidy under the stewardship of the Public Service Transformation Academy, a social enterprise led by a public service consultancy, the Whitehall & Industry Group and 10 other partners. This success is due to several factors. 

Central academy recruitment is managed to ensure a rich diversity of participants, and the associated exposure to different contexts and experiences prompts learning and challenge of practice. Local academies, which feature the same philosophy and core content, are tailored with a strong focus on specific challenges facing sub-regions, communities or organisations. 

From the outset of the first pilot it was recognised that the definition and application of commissioning needed to differ by sector and even between organisations within a sector, due to the policy context, culture, aspirations and preferences of leaders. In part, this led to commissioning being presented as a whole approach to public service leadership as well as a series of technical practices. Consequently, as a minimum, all organisations can realise the benefits associated with adopting or refining relevant commissioning practices.  

A further success factor is that the Commissioning Academy is neither an academic programme nor a training course. Theory and input is limited. Instead there is an emphasis on hearing first-hand the experience of practitioners, of working with peers tackling similar issues and on applying learning to the specific context of participants. 

Finally, success is due to continual updating of themes and content to reflect the ever-changing commissioning landscape. The Design Authority, which is part of the Commissioning Academy, constantly monitors sponsor and participant feedback and seeks the views of facilitators and technical specialists about anticipated developments in commissioning. 

And the future? 

It is perhaps risky to forecast the future of commissioning and academy content. However, greater emphasis is likely to be given to whole-systems leadership, asset-based commissioning, individual and community self-help and co-production. Increased attention will also be given to collaboration between commissioners and the voluntary and community sector, together with new ways of working with traditional suppliers. 

Those leading the Commissioning Academy are committed to ensuring that as the shape of commissioning changes, commissioning academies will remain at the leading edge of practice.




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