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Commissioning for the future

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

Benjamin Taylor, CEO of the Public Service Transformation Academy (PSTA), which has taken over the running of the Cabinet Office’s Commissioning Academy, talks to PSE about the future of public sector commissioning.

When PSE called Benjamin Taylor for our interview, we caught him in the middle of running a hack day in Cornwall. It’s an idea lifted from the technology sector, but applied to adult health and social care providers. PSTA brings people together and gives them challenges to complete, in the hope of leading to an exchange of ideas for innovative ways to solve a problem – in this case, how to help older people live independently for longer. 

It’s typical of Taylor’s outside-the-box approach. He’s a managing partner of consultancy start-up RedQuadrant and chief executive of the PSTA, a not-for-profit social enterprise that was recently awarded the contract to run the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy. 

The academy runs workshops for public service leaders – mainly from councils, clinical commissioning groups, and the police – to help them improve their commissioning leadership skills, before helping them develop 100-day plans to use what they’ve learned back in their organisation. 

As Taylor says, a new approach to commissioning has never been more urgently needed. 

“Everybody agrees that in the current financial climate, new thinking and new approaches are required,” he said. “Everyone I work with is facing really challenging savings targets. Broadly, I think there are two ways that those can be achieved. 

“One is finding opportunities for efficiencies, hopefully direct cash savings that minimise the impact on frontline services. That is necessary almost at all times because the financial envelope to do things is just getting smaller, it’s just a reality of life, but it does have a limit. You do run out of space to make efficiencies doing things more or less the way you’re doing them now. And I do think where commissioning can really make a contribution is in creating some space for things that are a bit more transformational.” 

Commissioning and procurement distinction 

He’s also keen to stress that there’s a distinction between commissioning and procurement, quoting Carolyn Wilkins, the chief executive of Oldham Council (who PSE interviews on pages 38-39), at the launch of the local Commissioning Academy for Greater Manchester. She said that a council can simply procure a contract, for example for street cleaning, or they can “commission for clean streets”, which involves thinking about multiple factors, including the position of bins, when they are collected, whether the architecture of local buildings encourages wind alleys, and how the community can get involved in preventing litter dropping. 

This big picture, preventative approach, he argues, can be implemented cheaply and lead to greater savings in the long run. 

“Outsourcers many years ago used to talk about offering ‘Your mess for less’ and I think there’s been great learning across the public sector over the last 10 or 20 years about where you are getting services provided externally,” said Taylor. He added that organisations now consider, much more, “how to think for the longer term and how to make sure that the quality of service is what’s promised, how to manage contracts, but also how to shape the market and encourage there to be a really good, competitive, capable market for things that you need to pay for”. 

However, he says that PSTA also teaches that “you can spend too long trying to analyse, trying to boil the ocean, trying to understand everything”. 

“I think the trick is to think about the much bigger picture but time-box it,” he said. “There’s a maxim – ‘You never understand the system until you start to change it.’ So it’s about finding ways to quickly, and as cheaply as possible, test innovative ideas and get real feedback to see if they do make a difference.” 

He also says that another way councils can improve commissioning, especially in devolved areas, is by acting more collaboratively with other councils and local organisations. However,  Taylor warns that there a number of challenges to this approach: “It’s all about building good personal relationships, about aligning your targets and motivators in the different organisations, and it’s not going to happen unless people are focused on the bigger picture of what are we actually trying to achieve.” 

Taylor added he is seeing increased collaboration, in part driven by a desire to “learn better ways” to cope with funding pressures, and more and more “working with communities to help people solve their own problems in really constructive ways”.

For more information about the Public Service Transformation Academy, click here.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Terry Jackson   12/06/2017 at 16:29

Are the elements and principles of co-production being embraced by the public sector in looking at new commissioing models?

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