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Commissioning - A Level Playing Field?

31 Jul 2013 - 14:03 by Nigel Rose

There is much glib talk of a level playing field in procurement and commissioning. The theory is that there is an open, transparent and fair process which gives all organisations bidding for a contract an equal opportunity of "winning". Let's look at how level this playing field is.

First an anecdote! Many years ago I was heavily involved in campaigning for the rights of people with mental health problems and one of the key issues, as always, was access to work. One particularly enterprising council that I came across had, through long experience and monitoring, realised that no-one with long-term mental health problems was getting through their "equal opportunities" recruitment and selection process.

Even though they might well be able to do the job they didn't have the presentation skills to get through the interview and there were always other candidates who came across more convincingly in an interview. The radical solution that worked? ..... Just give people with mental health problems jobs and give them the support to do them effectively. The conclusion - all selection processes have inbuilt bias. It is inevitable and the aim is always to minimise bias where possible and understand the biases that remain. It is a process of choice: every selection process includes some and excludes others by every decision about the design of the selection process. Despite their best attempts the council in my anecdote could not devise a selection process based around an interview that included people with mental health problems.

In a similar way there is not and never can be a procurement process without inbuilt biases. A level playing field does not and never can exist and the perpetuation of this myth obstructs useful discussion about how to approach the design of procurement processes. The issue is to be open and transparent about the qualities and types of applicants they favour and why, and making choices between a number of different selection processes all of which will have certain benefits and downsides.

Selection processes have to be carefully designed to attract and select the kinds of organisations that are appropriate to carry out the intended outcomes. For example it is rather unlikely that a procurement exercise that works for a large national organisation will also work for a community organisation or less obviously that an application process that depends on subtle nuances of language will work for a new migrant organisation.

So what are some of the biases at work in commissioning and procurement processes that should be considered at the design stage?

The first and most basic issue for the VCS is a cultural one. VCS organisations are different from private companies. In general, they are value driven, passionate about what they do and their approach, know and understand the clients they work with and see clients in a holistic way. I do realise I'm making large generalisations but it's true enough of many VCS organisations. They are client focussed and not contract driven. Contracts are just a way of enabling them to do the work that they know needs doing. VCS organisations are at their best working in cooperation both with commissioners and other organisations.

The culture of VCS organisations is not one of a competitive market which many procurement processes seem to favour. They are not constantly seeking to try and understand the competition, to analyse the market, to position themselves in the market, to develop marketing and branding, to lower costs, to identify their unique selling propositions, to monopolise the market, to narrow their offer so they can offer more competitive prices - in short, normal business practices. They are generally spending most of their time trying to offer better services to their clients whereas any good business knows that everything depends on marketing and customer (the funder) relations.

Businesses also don't tend to "shout" at the people who are funding them. Many VCS organisations believe advocacy for their client group is a central part of their purpose even if that means biting the hand that feeds them. Not only might this make the procuring body less likely to fund them (personally I’ve had more than one source of funding refused on these grounds), some VCS organisations expend considerably resources on advocacy, resources that might otherwise be used on marketing or other business practices that would improve their "offer".

There are as many other differences between VCS organisations and businesses as there are between large VCS organisations and small VCS organisations. Businesses may claim (and sometimes legitimately) that many procurement processes disadvantage them, that they are not able to bring in other funding through charitable giving, that volunteering and environmental policies and questions about social value are not necessary. However, my point is not that VCS organisations are more disadvantaged than businesses; it is that there is not a level playing field. All procurement processes will disadvantage some and benefit others in a reasonably predictable manner. Those that design procurement processes need to acknowledge and own this and make decisions based on this knowledge rather than pretending otherwise. It is arguably a duty as part of the EU requirement for public bodies to be “transparent”.

Finally, many of the procurement processes that I have seen favour: the ability to fill in a form; organisations with written policies; clear “packages” of support; “independent” evidence of effectiveness; an outcome focus; and coherency of message. Some VCS organisations have learnt to do this well and others are learning as fast they can but many probably never will.

The question remains though who will be excluded and the impact that this has on wider society. In my earlier anecdote people with mental health problems could not get jobs, leading to systematic discrimination. My worry is that procurement processes are unknowingly doing the same.

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