Could social media help to open up commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at how commissioners can embrace social media. Opening up commissioning can play a significant role in ensuring local accountability over what is commissioned ultimately leading to better, cheaper services. Social media could help.

The NCVO defines commissioning as “…the process of finding out about public needs, then designing and putting in place services that address those needs.” Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process involving research and analysis, design, procurement, contract management and evaluation. Commissioning has often been overlooked by policymakers but there is increasing recognition that it is an important policy lever as increasing amounts of public services are outsourced, a direction of travel that the Coalition has committed to speed up.  David Cameron set out in a speech in July 2011 a commitment to open up public services by challenging the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector.

Commissioning has traditionally been a function of public bodies like central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies. However increasing amounts of public services are actually commissioned by the private and voluntary sector; with the Work Programme being the best example of this with private prime contractors responsible for commissioning a range of providers in their supply chain.  Commissioning by the private and voluntary sector offers up opportunities for innovation but there are also equally concerns about how services are commissioned by these bodies.

Commissioning is still largely a ‘closed shop’, operating in a bubble of the ‘professional knows best’ culture with activity taking place behind closed doors. Bureaucratic hurdles such as requirement of bidders to provide three years of accounts or TUPE obligations and perceived legal barriers such as EU competition law stifle the appetite for innovation and collaboration. This results in only limited engagement with relevant stakeholders either at the beginning of the commissioning process or after it has been completed.

This ‘closed shop’ approach to commissioning hampers innovation as the insights and ideas of providers and citizens are neglected or ignored.  Collaboration between providers is constrained because this approach results in competition rather than partnership, with providers reluctant to share any of their ‘added value’ for fear of it reducing their advantage when it comes to the scoring of their tender.  Finally, it reinforces inertia as commissioners are reluctant to de-commission or radically change what is commissioned.

There have been some innovations on the fringes of commissioning, but these are not yet the mainstream. Participatory budgeting is a process that many local authorities have adopted to engage local citizens in deciding how to spend small pots of discretionary funds. It was developed in Porto Alegre in Brazil has since been adopted in the UK. In my own borough of Lambeth residents were asked to decide which community projects should receive investment from a £250,000 investment pot. Residents were not able to suggest projects but could decide which of those offered up should receive funding.

Whilst Turning Point’s Connected Care uses a community research model to support the commissioning process.  Community researchers are involved in the development of a comprehensive needs assessment to inform what is commissioned. These researchers are local citizens who have received training to take part in a structured research process. The model has obvious benefits in that the local community plays an integral role in helping to shape what is commissioned but this approach has been criticized for being too expensive.

Both of these models offer interesting insights about future possibilities for a more collaborative and open approach to commissioning, where citizens play an active role as ‘producers’ as well as ‘consumers’ of services. Their reach could be expanded further through the use of social media. Community researchers could for instance use social media to crowd source quantitative and qualitative data to inform the needs assessment. Yet both of these examples operate at the fringes of public services. Examples of where citizens are engaged in designing services that help the public sector respond to the big challenges of cuts, an ageing society and climate change are harder to come by.

At the moment, we are thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media. Could this approach be applied to commissioning? So far we have talked a lot about national policy in our work (and it would be interesting to speculate on what the Work Programme would look like if the design had been crowdsourced). However, most commissioning however takes place at the local level, so the ‘guerilla policy’ approach also needs to be applied locally. In this series we will consider what role social media could play and where commissioners could adopt this approach.

4 Comments on “Could social media help to open up commissioning?”

  1. Alex Kenmure says:

    Interesting post Chris – an issue close to my heart (and I would imagine the hearts of a lot of local authority officers). When thinking about the role of residents/users/on-users in the commissioning process, I naturally lean to exploring what we can mine from our “community resources”, but lately i’ve been wondering if there isn’t a more pressing need for commissioners to share their knowledge, experience and insights with others in a more interesting and engaging way. I by no means believe that professionals know best, but they do sometimes know more simply due to the fact that for 35+ hours of the week they are exposed to the problem in a way few others can be. Could there be a role for social media first and foremost in getting professional networks to share – I’m often amazed that even with my own limited knowledge about local social issues, whenever I start a conversation with “Did you know..?” the response is “no I didn’t, tell me more.” Trouble is, public sector bodies in general tend not to be very comfortable having friendly mature chats with other people…

    Perhaps, counter-intuitively for a system designed to get more “non-professionals” involved in policy development, the first step might be getting professionals to open up and engage with the Guerilla Policy platform!?

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment and Alex and please do keep an eye out for the further blogs that we will be publishing as part of this series.

    I completely agree with your point about facilitating collaboration between professionals. One of our hopes with Guerilla Policy is that it facilitates collaboration between organisations and different sectors. We are really keen for it to inspire multi-disciplinary collaboration as well.

    I work in social care and I am struck that providers who provide support to older people do not really talk with those who support disabled adults and visa versa despite the fact that we are grappling with many of the same challenges. We almost operate in parallel universes. This is an area where Guerilla Policy could help.

    I would also like to see Guerilla Policy become a platform which facilitates collaboration internationally. We have just hosted a visit from a sister organisation in North Carolina and Virginia who are tackling the same issues as my organisation – how to transform services, how to retain talent, how to scale new service models, how to measure impact of new service models etc. The insights from this visit have been invaluable but these encounters are far too rare, which a platform like Guerilla Policy could help to address.

  3. Alex Kenmure says:

    Sounds cool. On your point about people trying to achieve the same things operating as if they were in parellel universes, do you have any thoughts on why that might be, and I guess more specifically how GP addresses this? All too often I find I don’t have a particularly strong insight myself(!) but I’ve noticed a genuine fear sometimes of entering into a discussion with users/providers/residents/professionals etc. Fear of what? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but one of the phrases I hear a lot and absolutely loathe is “managing expectations”. It seems sometimes like professionals (and others) have already had the conversation in their head and made their minds up that it’s not going to end well (a bit like when you talk yourself out of asking someone out!). It almost feels like we need to reassure people that the worst that can happen is someone disagrees – which happens all the time – and the best that can happen is that you achieve something amazing

  4. I struggle with this one as well.

    Part of it I think is inertia, organisations are part of existing networks, there are existing cross organisational relationships and it is easier to stick with the status quo. There is always the element of competition between different organisations within the same sector.

    I also wonder if small differences between sectors are turned into much bigger things than they actually are. It is only with time and a conversation that people realise the similarities. People can often get hung up on language for instance. I have just taken part in an exchange visit with an American charity who provide support to disabled people, I was really struck by the similarities between their supported living and residential care services and those provided in the UK. The language is different but the models are broadly similar, we are grappling with the same challenges and heading in similar directions. I had expected that things would be far different than they actually are. In fact there are lots of opportunities for sharing insight and practice.

    Guerilla Policy can help as it is a platform for a conversation, both discovery of new ideas and exchange of ideas. In the design of the platform, we are trying to think how to ‘design-in’ this idea of collaborative working. In our workshops to test the idea with different charities, this was one of the elements that came back strongly as a need from them as well.

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