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It’s that time of year again! Financial settlements with government have mainly been finalised and local government are starting to commission out services.

For this reason, last month Homeless Link organised a round table, jointly with the Local Government Association, to share experiences between commissioners and providers. This blog share some of the key themes that emerged.

The challenge

The challenges of commissioning are well known. In the past proposal writing against a tight deadline never brings out the most imaginative thinking. Playing it safe when jobs and service provision hang in the balance can seem like a sensible option. There is a tension between balancing the economies of scale from national organisations against the local knowledge and agility of smaller organisations.

Hopefully, the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will mean that commissioning can move to the slightly longer horizon – which gives certainty to organisations and their staff and indeed the people who we are all working with.

However, not all funding streams have moved to three years. Short term funding makes planning impossible and makes it hard to retain and invest in high quality staff. Contracting is arduous for councils to manage. Everyone would be grateful for more simplified systems and the running together of different grant streams.

Large, small or the best of both worlds?

Large contracts are easier to manage for commissioners and should benefit from economies of scale. But they can exclude smaller, local providers who bring to the table not only local knowledge, but also innovative approaches and often some added value by way of other charitable income or services.

Some smaller providers will not have the systems and track record required and have therefore never been able to engage with commissioning and are still reliant on grant funding.

One solution proposed, with a particularly good example from Leeds, is to commission consortia. In these cases, one larger partner leads the contract, but smaller players are written in to provide specific inputs. The commissioner can play an active role in encouraging a consortium to be formed, although this is a process that can take 18 months. And the consortium can help to define the specification for the tender. If successful this can result in reduced overheads, more flexibility and greater joined up services. It does require at least one of the providers to lead and have adequate capacity to manage the contracts.

But consortia are not a panacea and can sometimes experience challenges. It is crucial to have clear accountability lines. And be particularly aware of different values and cultures between consortia members. For example, a small charity may have an absolute no evictions policy where a bigger housing provider (and consortium leader) may not share this policy which can lead to tension.

It was agreed that the consortium approach is an effective way of dealing with commissioning flexibly, especially with staffing. During the pandemic, staff could be moved around to fill in pressures and gaps between members of the consortium. This improved understanding and respect between services. And consequently led to better referrals and services.

Building in Flexibility

Homelessness is complex and commissioners need to acknowledge and work with complexity instead of aiming to control it. It was pointed out that during the pandemic, KPI’s fell by the wayside, and this sometimes led to better consequences, because services were able to address the needs of the individual client, rather than chase arbitrary goals and targets. This approach runs counter to traditional commissioning which often have hard KPIs and deliverables.

Some people felt that service specifications can be so prescriptive, that they contract out innovation and local expertise. Commissioners need to build in learning, as a purposeful way to drive change in complex systems. Using systems thinking creates outcomes across the system rather than a series of outputs.

One innovative commissioner spoke of having moved away from price evaluation of tenders. They found that the lowest price resulted in more issues having to be picked up further down the line and hence was a false economy. Now they give a budget with their commissions and evaluate people on how well they spend it. This has led to having more local providers and less national. They have open book accounting so they can see where money is genuinely being spent.

Working together

As well as good commissioning and contract management, trusting relationships between services (and the individuals involved in running them) is important. A few good examples were shared where councils and commissioned services met regularly with other key stakeholder to discuss every aspect of services from operational day to day casework to the strategic direction of the city through a homelessness strategy.

Shared IT systems has really helped communication between councils and services. This means that everyone understands the person supported through the same casefile and the individual doesn’t have to continually repeat information.  It also helps with data sharing agreements. too.

Involving people with lived experience is important in service design to make sure that what is being delivered is what is wanted.

Conclusions

In terms of work going forward, everyone in the group agreed more work needs to be done around “move on” and how commissioned services and councils can work together to ensure long term, sustainable housing for customers that doesn’t result in revolving door homelessness.

LGA and Homeless Link have been asked to pull together and share case studies on good commissioning and continue our lobbying for extra resources. If you have positive or negative experience that you would like to share, please get in touch.

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Rob Cartridge

Head of Communications and Advocacy

Rob Cartridge is a Campaigns and Communications Manager at Homeless Link.