Commissioning is often described as ‘only procurement, really’, whereas those trying to use a commissioning approach have a much wider vision for their practice.
Procurement and commissioning people might complain about each other, but each have critical roles to play if we are to provide local public services in austerity. So what’s the difference between the two?
Procurement involves understanding citizen needs, requirement specifications, planning, contract and performance management, and reviewing and learning. Good procurement officers will look upstream from what they are procuring and ask why that service is needed. This way they open up early intervention and prevention.
In fact, good strategic procurement builds a ‘commissioning cycle’; a powerful mechanism for maximising the use of resources, well-matched against community need. So, having said good procurement professionals deliver what is mostly considered to be commissioning, what’s left?
Commissioning works on a bigger stage and commissioners must think upstream and downstream in more depth.
To explore that difference, let’s return to the grumbles about each other. Narrowly drawn procurement approaches make hard work of some innovative commissioning, such as working with an alliance of providers to develop solutions. Yet both approaches have to think carefully about market stewardship, i.e. ‘if I buy in this way, this time, will there be anybody left to provide next time I go out to tender?’ Both have to deal with their social value obligations. Increasingly, both have to deal with a new norm that requirements, funding and ownership of outcomes are spread out across multiple partners.
So far, you might say this is nothing a good strategic procurement officer would not want to work on. I wouldn’t disagree. There are, however, some key differences.
Commissioning should move beyond thinking only about budgets as resources and towards marshalling partner, voluntary and community efforts, market innovation, technology, the power of public services to affect context (from social norms to urban design to legislative regimes) and, most importantly, the ability of citizens to help themselves. And if you aren’t limited to entering into legal contracts for money to deliver outcomes, you’d better start paying attention to what the people doing the work want to achieve too.
Commissioning has to grapple with a much more challenging concept of outcomes. While it is the job of procurement to force officers to put their requirements, goals, and aspirations into contractable form, commissioners will be seeking to achieve their outcomes through a wide variety of mechanisms and face the reality that only the communities in question can define and own the outcomes.
So, commissioning tries to create the context where procurement can help public services build community capacity, capability and prosperity, informed by a wholesystems view developed through hard work on outcomes and multiple learning opportunities.
Everyone needs to be a commissioner these days and make a procurement officer their ally – and there’s nothing to stop procurement officers from being commissioners themselves.
Benjamin Taylor, chief executive, Public Service Transformation Academy. The PSTA is the social enterprise which delivers the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy, now in its sixth year.
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First published on LGC's website