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Who are the Commissioners?

29 Apr 2013 - 12:46 by Nigel Rose

One way of describing my role as Strategic Lead on Commissioning is that it is “to improve commissioning between public authorities and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) ”. This raises the question “what is a public authority?”

The definition of public authority is particularly important in the procurement phase of commissioning as there are special rules that dictate how procurement works for public authorities. These were developed as part of the liberalisation agenda of the European Economic Community. Contracts that fall under Part A of the EU procurement rules are very strictly regulated. Most of the contracts that VCS apply for fall under Part B which allows public authorities much greater leeway. However, the overarching EU Treaty principles of openness, fairness, transparency and proportionality apply across the board.

Once upon a time public authorities might have been equated with statutory bodies; government departments; police; probation; local authority; NHS etc. However, when more and more formerly statutory organisation functions are contracted out then the former equation clearly no longer holds. A different definition is needed.

One important aspect of the definition is surely about money. Power comes with money and therefore should be accompanied by accountability in cases where the money comes from the public purse. So maybe it's a question of following the money.
A statutory authority will be at the top of the tree but many supply chains have multiple levels. Arguably EU procurement rules apply at every level of the supply chain. The recent horse meat scandal gives ample evidence of how important supply chain is.
The biggest receivers of public money through commissioning are the private sector, much of it outside the health, welfare and arts sector. More and more "back office" functions are run by private companies. In the welfare sector the Primes, companies such as Serco, Ingeus and Capita run the Work Programme, in the main, and will soon be running Probation services. Some are "fat Primes" that run most of the services themselves, others are "thin Primes" who mainly sub-contract.

Where Primes are sub-contracting they are acting as a proxy public authority. At a recent meeting with a consultant with Serco they described how they researched and developed an analysis of need and a service model, surveyed the market, and chose a number of organisations that they wished to work with. They set the terms and conditions on which they paid and worked with their sub-contractors. Sounds familiar to anyone who works with commissioners.

It is no secret that the larger primes would like to take over city hall, take out the middle-man and provide services across the board sub-contracting as necessary. They are seeking to take over all or most of what is currently done by local authorities.

Some version of the prime or lead contractor model is likely to become more and more dominant as commissioners in public authorities seek to reduce the number of contracts that they directly handle. One example in Manchester is the commissioning of Alcohol and Drug Services. The number of directly contracted organisations was drastically reduced but those organisations sub-contracted to smaller organisations. In this case the lead organisations were, in the main, voluntary organisations. Voluntary organisations are disbursing public money through sub-contracting and acting therefore as a public authority.

So what other organisations could this argument be applied to? Housing Associations? They are beginning to become more and more involved in sponsoring Academies, welfare and advice services, environmental projects, and community development. How much of the money that they are spending comes from rents and if so how much of this is through housing benefit and how much directly from statutory sources? Are they public authorities? More and more education funding now goes directly to schools who then buy the services they need. . Are they public authorities?

If all kinds of organisations are beginning to act at least in part as public authorities through commissioning services from public money then to what extent should they take on the other responsibilities of a public authority? How and to whom are they accountable? How do they further the process of democratic involvement in welfare services? What questions should we be asking of them?

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