Crisis in Commissioning, or, “Why are you throwing our money down the toilet?”
Lloyds Bank Foundation recently published an important national report on the impact of so called ‘commissioning’ on small and medium sized civil society organisations. I can’t say I read the report with any great surprise because it confirmed what experience tells us here at Leeds GATE. Commissioning is a mess. Not only is it a mess but it is actually threatening the survival of many of the small local organisations who provide help when vulnerable and struggling people need it most. Available funding is being scooped away from local providers and into the coffers of the largest charities and those with large enough budgets to have staff dedicated to tendering for contracts.
We fed into the LBF research with a case study of how local public health had commissioned for cancer awareness raising among key vulnerable groups. Our members were named as target groups for the work. Public Health had funded our organisation to develop local relationships with our members, developing effective techniques for engagement, and learning directly about what works in sharing health messages, via ongoing contracts for over a decade. We are a PQASSO accredited organisation with a track record of submitting accurate financial information and regular detailed contract reports to the authority. We have no wish to be a gate-keeper, or to ‘do all the work ourselves’. But you might think that these existing relationships would be exactly what a commissioner would be looking for in seeking an effective way to use a small amount of money?
Honestly, although it took days of work to complete the tender documents, we pretty much thought it must surely have our name on it. Of course the commissioners would recognise that such sensitive work with highly vulnerable communities would be best done on the basis of existing relationships of trust and personal awareness that they themselves had been supporting for years?
Not so. The contract was awarded to an organisation from outside of town with no local track record or relationships with the local target group. As we anticipated it hasn’t been possible to identify any discernible benefit from the funds spent. Not a single one of our members (we have over 700 members from a local community estimated to be 3000 people) has mentioned meeting a worker from that project or receiving any information from them, despite cancer being an issue of extreme and current relevance to them. We can find no evidence of evaluation or reports from the project. The size of that contract, or at least the ‘lot’ that related to our members, was £10,000. We complained of course, investing more unfunded effort into supporting the authority to understand why this wasn’t going to work.
The local authority has just done exactly the same thing again. Commissioned a three year cancer awareness raising project, including Gypsies and Travellers as named target groups, via a tendering process of which we were entirely uninformed. I have contacted other local groups whose beneficiaries are also named as target groups. They also were completely unaware of the commission. This won’t just be worth £10,000, indeed the successful applicant, a ‘community interest company’ based 75 miles away, has said it will be opening an office here whilst it delivers the project (likely putting desperately needed local funds into the pockets of a private landlord).
How do I even know about the contract now? Because the successful applicant, having only just now googled Gypsies and Leeds (which would bring you immediately to our website), has rung to ask for our assistance in reaching ‘the communities’. Of course the budget is all allocated and none is identified in order to support engagement with local, established but often small and under-resourced, groups. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that this project will have a negative effect on local organisations and therefore on their beneficiary communities. I know this because it inevitably will either drain our resources in supporting their work without funding, or it will compete with or duplicate work we are already committed to doing. So, as local groups we now have to decide whether we attempt to –
a) support the work for free (not possible or ethical as you would be using resources allocated by another funder for another purpose).
b) launch a joint complaint with other groups affected (again using unfunded capacity and with clear reasons to believe that our complaints will once again fall on deaf ears and lead to no outcome).
c) ignore the whole thing, accepting that our members will again lose out on funds intended for their benefit.
This is much bigger than just sour grapes from an unsuccessful bidder on a particular commission. This isn't just about whether or not small and local organisations should survive, although many beneficiaries of such local organisations would argue that they should. This is about local money being spent in the name of local people. It is about life extending knowledge potentially not reaching the people who need it. We hugely appreciate the work of the LBF in producing the Crisis in Commissioning report. However, in commissioning organisations across the country, tasked with effectively spending public money, is anyone listening?