Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Commissioners don't buy services they buy data

Yesterday NCVO published a particularly interesting article which examined public sector commissioning and payment by results from the perspective of a private sector prime contractor. In this, I found the following passage as particularly important

Data is king. This isn't just about getting results but about proving them. Something we've seen to not always be easy, and not always be honest

With the Work Programme the government sets out a series of targets it will pay for. The prime contractors will seek to find the most cost efficient way of providing data to meet that target. To be part of their supply chains providers need to be able to provide them with the data they need.

The government is introducing payment by results processes into public service delivery specifically to provide a market based approach and we need to understand this if we’re to engage in this growing market. Importantly, for markets to work well buyers and sellers need to have compatible and comparable information on price, utility, quality and production methods of products. 

This does bring into focus the support organisations may need to be able to engage in public sector delivery in future. Whilst many approaches to support the sector quite rightly have focused on improving bidding skills or in generating partnerships the key barrier to entry for many organisations in future may be in providing the appropriate data on their services. Organisations will not necessarily have developed their services in a way that matches the information needs of government or prime contractors but in direct response to the expressed needs of their communities and these communities can express their needs in many diverse ways.

This will present a number of challenges to the voluntary sector. If we’re to engage with commissioning we will need standardised information management that allows buyers to compare services and identify providers best able to support their work. However, many organisations with a close reach into marginalised communities may see a standardised approach as being antithetical to their work.

Of course this approach doesn't necessarily improve delivery. There is a growing view, articulated passionately in a recent Guardian article that payment by results systems and indeed other outcome measurement based approaches to delivery, distort priorities and promote the gaming of systems.

This may require us to make some hard decisions for our organisations and our approach to delivery. Our best work may require us to use methodologies that are not necessarily compatible with the demands of public service markets, meaning we are unlikely to be able to engage in them. Furthermore, even if we are able to adjust we may have to take a view on whether by engaging in such approaches will conflict with our own organisation's purpose.