The landscape for public service delivery in this country is changing fast.
In the future ever more of our public services will be delivered not by the public sector itself but from outside, whether by employee-led mutuals, joint ventures, social or charitable enterprises or conventional commercial providers.
It’s a new era - and anyone in the public sector thinking this won’t affect their organisation very much can think again.
Every government department, every local authority, every public sector body is going to have to change with the times.
Until now across the public sector there has too often been a failure to build and sustain new critical skills for running modern public services.
This has to change. In the future every public sector organisation will have to be faster, more skilled, more capable, more accountable for delivery, more focused on outcome not process.
This is clearly set out in the government’s Civil Service Reform Plan - our action plan for delivering a 21st century civil service, with the skills and capabilities needed to meet the challenges we face today.
Public sector commissioning is unsurprisingly one of the key areas to come under the spotlight -
This country needs more than ever effective commissioners able to deliver better outcomes for citizens and better value for money on ever tighter resources. Commissioners that will embrace new and innovative forms of delivery and build public services that better reflect the needs of their user.
Today we are launching a new Commissioning Academy that will help deliver a new wave of expert commissioners with the right skills for today’s demanding climate.
Fulfilling one of the key actions set out in the Civil Service Reform plan, the government has created this Academy with the support of the Local Government Association, for the whole public sector.
And this launch marks a key turning point for public service delivery in this country. The Commissioning Academy will play a vital role in training up capable, confident and courageous commissioners, able to tackle the many challenges facing our public services and take forward the new opportunities.
The global race
This is an important agenda for this government.
As the Prime Minister has set out, Britain is in a global race today. And without difficult, painful decisions, determination and imagination, Britain may not be in the future what it has been in the past.
In these last two years we have made good progress at putting the nation’s finances on a more stable footing - cutting the deficit we inherited by a quarter.
But the country still faces significant economic and financial challenges as well as rapid social, technological and demographic change.
Every part of the public sector is facing up to the challenge of reduced budgets - but at the same time demand for services is relentless and public expectations for services are rising. There is a huge pressure to do more for less.
Some cautious voices argue that now is not the time to rock the boat, that tough economic times mean sticking with what you know - and that less money just means doing less.
We know the opposite is true. Because of the challenges we face today - there needs to be a transformation in the way services are designed and delivered.
So there is more competition to provide the best, more flexibility and choice for users and more local control over the way they are run.
That’s why this government is implementing a radical programme of economic and public service reform; and these reforms are pushing power away from Whitehall and putting service users and communities in charge.
But we are clear that underpinning these reforms there needs to be reform of government itself - which is why we are committed to building new skills and capabilities in the civil service, and also across the public sector.
Improving commissioning skills is clearly a big priority - with commissioners set to be at the forefront of the public service transformation. As we spell out in the Civil Service Reform plan - with more and more services set to be commissioned from the outside we need many more public servants with skills in managing markets, negotiating and agreeing contracts and contract management.
At the moment there are still too many authorities and public bodies and government departments where commissioning approaches remain unimaginative, too focused on process and too risk averse.
As a result there are public bodies that just renew/re-let contracts for the same sorts of services because ‘it’s always been done this way’ - when they need to be constantly asking what outcome they’re actually looking for and if this is the right way of achieving it.
There are still bodies that instead of working with users and suppliers to really understand the need and what the desired outcomes should be - simply assume that the contracting authority knows best and issue a tightly restricted specification for a service designed by the contracting authority.
And then there are still too many bodies that only take account of their own money and staff as resources, rather than thinking about what the community can provide, what other public sector organisations might be able to provide and what could be achieved through influencing behaviour of service users.
There is also a widespread perception that commissioning activity, and indeed any procurement exercise, is considered a back-office, activity that follows specific technical processes.
This is wrong. Getting the right outcomes from commissioning requires leadership and accountability - people at the highest level engaging, understanding the problem and exercising their judgement on major commissioning decisions.
At the same time there are exemplary commissioning authorities pioneering new, innovative approaches to redesigning services. For example Wiltshire County Council has redesigned a service for supporting families with disabled children; cutting out the bureaucracy around assessing family needs and integrating the provision into other mainstream facilities. Their new model has resulted in 1,000 families now benefiting from their Short Breaks service, whereas only 100 families benefitted under the old model.
And East Sussex County Council’s has set up a simplified way for the council to commission services from voluntary and community groups and social enterprises.
This has led to substantial savings over more traditional tendering approaches and incorporates social value as an important part of the award decision - which is important.
It’s worth noting that the Public Service (Social Value) Act comes fully into force today - which sends a clear message to commissioners to consider the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of the services they are planning. And this should happen when authorities first start to consider what services they need and how they should be delivered - when of course they should also be engaging with service users and providers before rushing out to market.
The best commissioners are already doing this - but others need to catch up, and until now there’s been no consistently effective way of sharing best practise across different local areas and different sectors.
Whether things are working well - or not going as well as they might, it’s vital that we do more to join up and learn from each other’s experiences - and that is where the Commissioning Academy will play such an important role.
The Commissioning Academy
The Commissioning Academy will bring together senior commissioners from across the public sector to learn from the example of the most successful commissioning organisations.
It is open to all public sector commissioning organisations, including central government departments, local authorities, health bodies and justice organisations.
And the aim is to give participants a real boost of inspiration, contacts and knowledge, which will help them to go back and transform their organisation’s commissioning practice and ultimately re-design how local services are delivered.
It’s an opportunity for public sector commissioners to help access and understand the new skills they need to operate in a changing, demanding climate and to learn about new and innovative forms of delivery.
I’m pleased to announce today that the academy is now open for applications from senior level commissioners to join the first cohorts, starting from April 2013 onwards.
The Cabinet Office team will then assign applicants to cohorts, designing each group to give the optimum mix of central and local government, different sectors and service areas.
Participants will focus on practical peer-led learning covering key commissioning issues such as: outcome-based commissioning; working with the voluntary and community sector; market engagement and development; joint commissioning across organisational boundaries; and new models of delivery such as mutual and joint venture companies.
They will be sponsored by their Director Generals, Chief Executives or other senior figures, and on completion will implement important 100-day change programmes to improve their organisation’s commissioning practices.
The academy will open in April but we’re already confident this is going to be a hugely worthwhile experience - following two successful pilots that were set up last year and attended by commissioners from across the public sector.
I know from talking to some of the commissioners on these pilots and from the feedback they’ve given us that they have found taking part a hugely worthwhile experience.
Several participants have highlighted how their views on commissioning have changed - that they now see it’s not just a technical process but about asking the right question. What are the outcomes that we want to achieve for our citizens and how can all of the public sector partners in our area work together to achieve those?
Others have highlighted the opportunity to get together with other public sector partners and share experiences, the opportunity to visit other authorities and learn from real life examples.
And although the pilots are still underway, new working arrangements are already starting to emerge with the first cohorts sharing commissioning models, spend maps and methodologies developed within their organisations.
Organisations are also identifying opportunities to work better across boundaries with neighbours on the cohort.
And a network of great contacts is building - for example I understand, one cohort member is sitting on interview boards for another organisation’s recruitment exercise.
It’s been extremely interesting to hear from these first cohorts on how they have found the programme.
We are grateful to the pioneers who took part in these initial pilots. The shape and content of the Academy programme has been designing on the basis of their feedback.
And we will watch the progress of the academy’s first alumni with great interest as they go back to their communities and take forward their one hundred day plans. I have no doubt they will end up setting an example for other commissioners to aspire to.
We are living in tough economic times today - and there is huge pressure on public servants in every sector to deliver more for less.
But there is also a huge challenge and opportunity to reshape the future of public service delivery in this country and make services not just cheaper but better.
The public sector isn’t yet ready to meet this challenge - but it will be. Our cultures and ways of working won’t change overnight - but we can and must move at pace.
Because civil service reform and wider public sector reform isn’t optional or an added bonus to economic and public service reforms that are taking place.
It is fundamental to the delivery of more efficient and effective services for our citizens.
I believe the Commissioning Academy will be crucial in helping us develop the cadre of professionals that can deliver the innovative, user-friendly, efficient, 21st century public services local communities need.
I hope everyone here will become advocates for new forms of commissioning and the Commissioning Academy.
And I hope you will be able to support future cohorts with offers of site visits to see first-hand how great commissioning can work
We expect this academy will ultimately become a ‘must attend’ programme for all commissioning leaders and today I urge commissioners from across the public sector to sign up now and be one of the first beneficiaries, the first pioneers - this is your opportunity to lead the way in transforming public service delivery.