Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Holding your partners in a tighter embrace

The changes in our commissioning environment aren't just affecting business models but also the nature of delivery partnerships. New approaches to commissioning in partnership will leave some organisations better placed to access delivery opportunities but with a restriction on how independent they can be. Other organisations, particularly those which value an independent approach may find the going much tougher and commissioning opportunities few and far between.

As mentioned in my recent article on commissioning opportunities I've had a chance to talk to some potential prime contractors about the nature of their approaches to the delivery of probation services. A different set of lead providers will lead to different business approaches but attitudes to partnership will also be different.

Staff from one prime I met talked about their willingness to work in greater partnership. In their plans, once they had pulled together a team of provider organisations they’d then work for them as much as expect them to just deliver on contract. They talked about holding partners in a “tighter embrace” (their words) and rather than continually putting areas of new delivery out to the market they’d look to pass increasing amounts of work onto those partners. Sub-contractors would also be supported in developing their capacity to deliver within the partnership. In this model there would be a smaller number of sub-contractors than we may have seen pulled together by organisations bidding for Work Programme contracts and less chance of organisations used as bid candy.

However there would also be an impact to all this, if not a direct, financial cost. Sub-contractors would be expected to use the branding of the parent provider rather than deliver under their own identity. There would be a need to have a synchronous approach to service delivery with sub-contractors clearly supporting a set of agreed values related to service delivery. If potential partners believed that their values weren't in synch with the prime contractor then that’s fine with the prime, this just isn't a partnership opportunity that would work. This would mean that partners weren't purely selected on their ability to demonstrate impact of their services but on their ability to be a supportive partner.

This isn’t an isolated example. A colleague from a partner organisation recently visited a prison managed by a private sector prime where all the rehabilitation work has been contracted out to large voluntary sector providers. The service is apparently seamless with no obvious differentiation between staff employed by different organisations. There are clear benefits in terms of delivery here but significant challenges if you’re organisation sees its strong identity as being of critical importance to how you relate to your beneficiaries.

And as competitive pressures grow in the public sector then statutory bodies try to exert a stronger grip on delivery and we see this approach gain traction in public service delivery at a local level. There’s an increasing growth in contracting through framework approaches. These allow commissioners to create contracting agreements with a select range of providers who they will then cascade a range of opportunities to. This reduces the number of different procurement exercises an authority will need to undertake and will help organisations within the framework gain easier access to a range of delivery opportunities. However, there will be an inevitable need for these organisations to be trusted to be in synch with the authority’s approach and of course organisations that didn't get on the framework will be excluded from delivery.

Ultimately, the impact of public service delivery on organisation independence has always been with us and is not itself new. Whenever an organisation delivers to a specification designed by another party then that organisation has ceded some level of sovereignty in decision making to the client. Growing pressures on public spending are pushing commissioners to take a more risk averse attitude to contracting and attempt to exert a stronger grip on partners. As much as this may be counter-productive, in that it reduces the ability to take diverse approaches and degrades innovation, it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Whilst organisations need to understand the business models that will succeed in the new commissioning environment and articulate their impact there is a need to understand that partnerships are likely to be more demanding with partners clearly more interdependent. There’s sometimes a temptation to join partnerships because of the access to funding they might generate but the delivery relationships that are increasingly likely to be developed in the near future are more akin to marriages than casual flings. The partnership choices we make now will be increasingly critical and shouldn't be entered into lightly. Partnerships with organisations whose values don’t match your own are going to be problematic and with significant legal and financial consequences of failure then disentanglement will be much more difficult. To be truly independent isn't an easy option either, unless your organisation has access to significant assets.

Now, more than ever, it’s a critical business matter to understand what your values are and what you will or not compromise on and have open discussions on these issues with partners. A tighter embrace with a set of partners you share little in common with will not just be an inconvenience but could place your reputation and ultimately all your work at risk.