What role could social media play in 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.

In the first blog we considered the need to open up commissioning and this is where social media can help. Social media offers a range of tangible benefits for commissioners, which mirror those that we have documented for the policy and research community (and are the inspiration behind our Guerilla Policy platform). It is cheap and easy to use. It can provide a way for commissioners to engage citizens and providers in the commissioning process. It can play a significant role in building the confidence and trust of citizens and services users in what is actually selected because the commissioning process has been conducted in an open and collaborative way using social media.  Most importantly it can help commissioners to improve the quality and impact of services by opening up commissioning to new people and ideas.

When it comes to social media, commissioning seems like it’s in the dark ages. Even half of MPs now have an active Twitter account – yet a Facebook page or Twitter account would be seen as unusual, even regarded as risky, for a commissioning team. This means that commissioners are missing out on the opportunities that social media offers to collaborate with the people who use and provide public services to commission services that better meet need and use resources effectively.

Social media is an accessible, mass-market technology that is increasingly blurring the distinctions between ‘producers’ and ‘consumes’ of services.  Social media is a platform for collaboration.  It can facilitate the discovery of new or different insights about a social problem.  It can allow ordinary citizens, people who use and provide public services and commissioners to come together to co-design products and services.  More people involved means that more ideas are considered and there is greater transparency over what is actually commissioned resulting in good quality services that deliver better outcomes.

Social media is not a panacea and is at the end of the day a mechanism to support a wider shift in commissioning patterns from a command and control approach to one that is iterative, open, citizen-centred and reflects the lived experience of users.  A good example of this shift is the Make it Work service in Sunderland.  The service design agency Live:Work were commissioned to work in partnership with Sunderland City Council to design a new service to support hard to reach unemployed people secure employment.  Make it Work was designed through a collaborative process involving over 280 practitioners, employers and clients.  It became a two-year and £5m Working Neighbourhood Fund Service which has supported over 800 people, of who 200 have secured work (at a cost of less than £5,000 per person).  Where this example differs from the norm is that the commissioning cycle was broken up with the ‘needs analysis’ and ‘development of options’ phases undertaken by Live:Work, with a provider then selected to actually deliver the service.  The reach of these examples is going to be limited in an era of public sector cuts, but social media offers up a way to collaborate with citizens in the earliest stages of commissioning (building on this example) at far less cost.

Pepsi Refresh provides further inspiration for how social media could play a role in commissioning.  A web platform – http://www.refresheverything.com – was used to crowd source project ideas that could receive funding.  Up to 32 projects could receive funding each month.  The platform gauged the reaction of people to proposed projects to assist in determining those that should receive funding.  There are obvious parallels here with commissioning.

Both of these examples point to a different commissioning process, which is open, collaborative and built on the needs, lived experience and aspirations of those who will ultimately benefit from the services that are commissioned.  Social media provides a way  to help spread these approaches by providing the means to engage citizens and service users at far less cost and in a more focused way.  A local authority could for instance crowd source a needs assessment or use a social networking site to record people’s experiences of a service that is commissioned.  In the next blog, we will go onto further consider how social media could be used in the commissioning cycle.

The use of social media challenges the conventional way of commissioning as discussed in the previous blog and there will inevitably be concerns about the use of social media from commissioners and providers.  Obvious objections include how will this mesh with competition law, how do we up skill commissioners to adopt these methods, could the process be hijacked by a small minority motivated by a particular agenda and how can the commercial sensitivities of providers be protected?  All are genuine concerns and as a Director of Development for a large national disability charity I share some of them; yet these should not be barriers to change.  There are ways to remove these.  Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process that could be re-imagined as an iterative process, which we will consider further in our next blog.

Now social media should not be seen as a cheap alternative to commissioning of services.  This is not an agenda for cuts.  It will still need to be resourced, but it does hint at a new way of working for commissioners that we will look at in our next blog.  It is also not a panacea to solve all problems with commissioning.

Ultimately, why social media offers benefits to commissioners is that it helps people to feel that their voice is heard in decisions that are made about services that should be commissioned in their area.  Surely that can only be a good thing?

5 Comments on “What role could social media play in commissioning?”

  1. lemexie says:

    Couldn’t agree more about missed opportunity of commissioning by crowd sourcing. Commissioners are about “need” and “rationing”. Evidence of community input is much more acceptable that assuming that democratic mandate is sufficient.

  2. miiachambers says:

    We need a major campaign to fundamentally change public sector commissioning. The current trend in outsourcing to the mega corps further removes resources away from the frontline. Maybe social media is one way to engage the public in how public money is spent.

    Great write up here

    We need a major campaign to fundamentally change in public sector comissions, and how public money is spent. Great write up here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/20/public-sector-outsourcing-fairness?CMP=twt_fd

  3. Alex Kenmure says:

    Hey Miia – read that Guardian link this morning. I thought this was a pertinent intro

    ‘”Public sector commissioning”: I can’t think of a phrase that conveys something so important and yet sounds so soporific. The worst thing about it is that, the minute you stop being bored, you will immediately become angry.’

    I guess the bit I would focus on is “the minute you stop being bored” – I’m not exactly sure when/if that minute happens but seeing the phrase in print made me realise just how boring it sounds! First step in the campaign to fundamentally change public sector commissioning – find a way of explaining it that doesn’t send… people……. to…………….. sleep… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    • miiachambers says:

      The tragedy of it all is that nothing much could be more vital, infuriating and important than how commissioning is carried out or developed…currently £236 of our money is spent through such activity with little transparency or results…and most of us have no say…and all our vital services and functioning of the public sphere relies on sound judgements on our money is spent. Let’s move towards open book commissioning with public involvement …

  4. Thanks all for taking the time to read the blog. Thanks also Miia for sharing the Guardian article – it was very pertinent.

    I do think that ‘public sector commissioning’ poses a number of questions that tend to get ignored. What about issues related to local democratic accountability? How can elected members scrutinise effectively? What about health of the commissioned marketplace i.e. the maturing of the market around a group of large private sector providers as Zoe Williams points out? What about failure – if a provider goes bust what happens then?

    Open, iterative commissioning using social media would certainly help with ‘opening up’ commissioning to wider debate.

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