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Next generation commissioning councils

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Back in February, Northamptonshire CC approved plans for radical reforms that could mean the vast majority of its frontline services eventually being commissioned from external organisations, and its directly employed workforce potentially cut to as few as 100 to 150 employees.

The move, assuming it happens, would see the council becoming one of a select ‘next generation’ of commissioning councils. From ‘easyCouncils’ (Barnet LBC) to ‘John Lewis’ or ‘Co-operative’ councils (Lambeth LBC, Plymouth City Council and others), the notion of commissioning councils, or councils where the focus is on commissioning the delivery of services from other agencies rather directly delivering services themselves, has been something of a gift for headlines writers since 2010.

But what does it actually mean to be a commissioning-led authority? Especially given where we are in the political cycle, paused for breath but grimly expectant of more of the same to come whichever party enters No 10, where is this evolution heading? Can councils really influence demand through a commissioning-led model and what will the next generation of commissioning councils look and feel like?

It was with these tough questions in the mind that LGC, in association with Serco, brought together a high-level panel including representatives from Northamptonshire, Barnet and Plymouth to discuss where commissioning councils are heading. What are the challenges and future opportunities of these new commissioning models? How will these models change the dynamic between local authorities, health services, communities and private and third sector partners? What will be the role of intelligence and customer data within all this?


Akeem Ali, director of public health and wellbeing, Northamptonshire CC

Carole Burgoyne, strategic director for people, Plymouth City Council

Stephen Evans, director of strategy and communications, Barnet LBC

Nick Golding, editor, LGC (chair)

Michael Larner, principal analyst, TechMarketView     

Phil Ruston, business development director, Serco

Claire Taylor, business transformation manager, Cherwell DC, South Northamptonshire DC, Stratford on Avon DC

Rachel Whitworth, management consultant, Serco Consulting

Rachel Whitworth

Rachel Whitworth

Rachel Whitworth, consultant at Serco, opened the discussion by asking the panellists to outline where they were on their commissioning journey, adding: “One thing we’re particularly interested in is innovation; so how do you start to generate those ideas around commissioning and your commissioning lifecycle? How do you think about what innovation there is? Do you just look to other councils to see what they are doing, or do you look wider to see what the private sector is doing?”

Stephen Evans, director of strategy and communications at Barnet LBC, conceded the ‘easyCouncil’ label was one the council had acquired rather than actively sought. The process had been an evolution, he explained, from relatively standard outsourcing of back office contracts to a much more fundamental re-evaluation of its purpose and function.

“We’ve split commissioning from day-to-day delivery. So, we’ve got a commissioning group, which is full of people who are looking at the medium to long term and we’ve got a set of delivery units looking at the day-to-day delivery. But it

Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

grew organically out of the new direction we were heading in, rather than it being ‘let’s move all the deck chairs around and call ourselves a commissioning council’,” he said.

“We’ve been on quite a long journey to transform our adult social care department and we’ve put in place a completely new operating model,” said Carole Burgoyne, strategic director for people at Plymouth City Council.

“On 1 April, for example, we entered into a Section 75 agreement with our clinical commissioning group that will bring together the whole of my budget, which covers children, adults, community safety, all of our health and wellbeing budgets, into a single combined commissioning budget,” she added.

“We have quite a long history of joint working, quite traditional shared services programmes, back office, joint management team, joint chief executives and so on,” explained Claire Taylor, business transformation manager at Cherwell DC, South Northamptonshire DC and Stratford on Avon DC.

“What we found is we were delivering the savings as planned and as we developed the partnership across the three [councils] we started to ask, is this model fit for purpose? Can you keep just sharing managers and back office; does it really give you what you want?

“So we started to think much more strategically about the whole joint working/shared service programme and then about aligning it more closely with our organisational priorities around strategic growth, housing, affordable housing, and economic development particularly. Over the last year or so we’ve thought much more fundamentally about joint working and collaborative partnerships – how we can shape places while dramatically reducing the cost of our organisation, and how we can do joint working and shared services without taking out strategic capacity,” she added.

Akeem Ali

Akeem Ali

Akeem Ali, director of public health and wellbeing at Northamptonshire CC, agreed the changes coming through at his council were “really, really dramatic”, not least with Local Government Shared Services, the ventures it owns with Cambridgeshire CC. This, he pointed out, was still expanding, and had just signed a back office contract for a local NHS provider. “Our ambition is to create a broad-based local government shared service for as wide a part of the country as possible, not just in the Midlands,” he said.

With one of the lowest levels of council tax in the country and little in the way of reserves or assets, the council “was coming from a pinched point”, he conceded, and therefore had little option but to look at radical solutions. The council is proposing a structure based around four federated social enterprises, covering children’s services, adult services and social care, health and wellbeing, and place shaping.

But Mr Ali emphasised: “We need to be absolutely clear what our focus is for our citizens, which is about creating wellbeing and protecting the most vulnerable: that’s what our business is. Therefore if we see everything through that lens, how do you make that happen in a structurally sensible, operationally sensible way and deliver within the amount of money that you’ve got?”

The use of intelligence, insight and analytics was going to be a key part of next-generation commissioning, predicted Philip Ruston, business development director at Serco.

“There is a need for intelligence-led commissioning; there’s a real challenge for us all to use the data we’ve already got but also to create something that allows us to deliver those public services. There is a real challenge around how you maintain the experience of the citizen, keep the citizen at the focus; how do you maintain that in a commissioning environment?” he said.

Phil Ruston

Phil Ruston

“How do you provide insight to the residents to generate interest in these place-shaping ideas, to show that it’s not just about waste collection?” said Michael Larner, principal analyst at TechMarketView. “How do we take those ideas – smart city, place shaping – how do we communicate them concretely to residents? Within this, how do you avoid accusations of postcode lotteries? We talk about what’s going on Northamptonshire, for example, but then are the neighbours in Leicestershire, say, doing very different things or having very different experiences?”

At this point LGC editor Nick Golding, chairing the debate, asked the panel to consider what the phrase “next-generation commissioning council” meant to them.

“It is about primarily moving away from episodic service contractual management to focusing on outcomes for a defined population. That is critical; and doing it within the overall resources for the area, not just what you control as a local authority,” argued Mr Ali.

“You have to think about a whole range of commissioning,” said Ms Burgoyne. “Our roles as leaders in local authorities are very different now: we’re all leading across systems.

“We’re going to move from being councils that deliver everything to councils that help shape place and help citizens design the services they need for the future. Things like jobs, investment and housing are just as important as delivering services for the more vulnerable,” she added.

Carole Burgoyne

Carole Burgoyne

“I’d hope that in five years’ time the phrase ‘commissioning council’ wouldn’t be used,” said Mr Evans. “Our vision in Barnet is that in five years’ time we are not a commissioning council, we are a board of organisations that commission jointly for the borough, for outcomes; looking at where the greatest need is. We’re taking steps to do this. Our council board meets every two months with leaders of the other local partners, with the CCG, with the police, with Middlesex University and with Jobcentre Plus. So we meet as a board: a Barnet board.”

What was likely to be the easiest structure within which to achieve these ‘next generation’ models, asked Mr Ruston: unitary, district or county?

Unitary would probably be the easiest simply because the decision-making process was likely to be the least complicated, said Mr Ali, but he added: “I don’t think the ‘unitaryness’ or the two-tier nature is the key problem. It’s the fundamental dialogue between officers and politicians, how enriched and trusting it is, and how prepared people are to cross boundaries, even within the same organisations, in terms of portfolio holding.”

“It helps where you have responsibility for the complete city but inevitably the places you want to co-operate and commission with, on the whole their boundaries aren’t the same,” added Ms Burgoyne. “Our CCG does not fully match our boundaries and if you look at our big acute hospital, it takes from the city but it also takes from the two counties around us.”

The debate then ranged around themes including the importance of piloting and prototyping (and the importance of being prepared to try things, even if they don’t work); the importance of engaging citizens and members; and the importance of building and embedding new skill-sets.

Mr Evans said: “If we’re going to go down this road, local government needs different skill-sets. It needs more commercially minded people. You have to go out to the market and, yes, you’ll have to pay a bit more for an experienced contract manager with a track record but, actually, if you’re signing a multi-million pound contract that is going to deliver you significant savings, paying £20,000 more for someone is not a risk compared to the contract not delivering.”

As the debate drew to its conclusion, Mr Golding asked the panellists for what they would take away from the discussion.

“There’s a common language being created, common themes, which is encouraging,” said Serco’s Mr Ruston. “It’s just picking out those themes and identifying what are the priorities for the next-generation commissioning council. What shall we focus on developing? Commercial skills, identifying assets, and identifying the way we forecast and manage demand.”

“There are a lot of nuts-and-bolts things we need to learn and know how to do well,” said Northamptonshire’s Mr Ali. “Then there are a few big debates that will be coloured by where we are individually. So how could we, as a collective, create opportunity for these debates to happen?”

“It’s about the breadth of commissioning. It’s so easy to focus on just one piece of it; I’ve got to get co-production right, or co-design, or more intelligence,”

Claire Taylor

Claire Taylor

said Cherwell’s Ms Taylor. “It’s about bringing it through the whole system, and that is really challenging but it is genuinely transformational.”

“One of things that has come through to me is the ambition within areas,” said Plymouth’s Ms Burgoyne. “You have to know the place you’re in; you need to understand what the issues are there. You’ve got to be able to manage the creative side as well as being able to make the changes that have to happen. The only way you can do that is working across systems, across boundaries and being very bold sometimes about the steps you need to take.”

“There’s clearly a common theme about commissioning across organisations and seeing services as services, not a council service or a health service,” said Barnet’s Mr Evans.

“It is all tied into place shaping. So it is more than just an idea or a concept; it is about integrating the services across agencies,” said TechMarketView’s Mr Larner. “The big challenge is co-ordination, but also having sufficient capacity.”

“There is definitely something for me around the role of the workforce and how you engage the workforce and help them to change how they work,” concluded Serco Consulting’s Ms Whitworth. “I love the focus on the place rather than just the council. It is also so important to introduce piloting in everything you do, in terms of implementation. I love the idea about leading across systems; that is changing the traditional view,” she added.

Serco final


This roundtable discussion was sponsored by Serco. The topic was agreed by LGC and Serco. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. See for more information


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