In an increasingly complex and fragmented employment support and skills landscape, with government funding reducing and the role of local bodies expanding, getting commissioning right at a local level has never been so important. The opportunities are huge – services can be better tailored to the needs of local residents and businesses - but the challenges are immense. The employment support sector is seeing a rise in complicated procurement arrangements and never-before-tried processes. Whilst undertaken with the best intentions, local commissioning can be easily undermined by simple mistakes such as ill-judged design decisions or a lack of dialogue with local providers.
In support of the growing number of local commissioners, from local authorities to CCGs to potentially prison governors, ERSA has developed a guide designed for these times - Better Commissioning for Local Skills and Employment. The guide aims to help commissioners make the most of the devolution agenda while avoiding the many pitfalls which lie at the end of the process. Helping to increase knowledge and share best practice from frontline experience, the guide is part of the sector’s ongoing efforts to ensure that the best possible services are delivered for learners and jobseekers.
One of the guide’s key recommendations is establishing a clear plan from the start of the process – mistakes at the earliest stages can pose a very real threat to the process as a whole. Starting with a rigorous assessment of need in an area is important to understanding people and costs, whilst a census of existing services means that any commissioned provision can be best aligned to take advantage of, rather than duplicate, resources, driving efficiency and better integration.
Similarly, having clear goals and carefully considering what success looks like is vital. Is success simply moving people into employment? Is the type or duration of employment a consideration? For longer-term outcomes, interim progress measures need to be in place in a procurement process to ensure that commissioners are able to monitor performance throughout the contract. Clarity around aims allows for better monitoring of progress during the contract and gives all providers a better idea of what is going to be required of them.
The guide also examines the importance of transparency and open dialogue in commissioning; early consultation with stakeholders and providers during design stages gives a wealth of practical experience that can ensure that the finished product is robust and effective. Yet maintaining transparent processes and an open dialogue with bidders throughout the process is equally key to building trust. Communication and clarity in commissioning creates a healthy process which ultimately feeds through to successful delivery.
Communication also has a role to play in avoiding some of the most common pitfalls found in commissioning, such as unrealistic timeframes and legal challenges. The most alarming prospect for any commissioner is facing a legal challenge to their decision, which can significantly delay the procurement of services and incur significant costs for all involved parties. Fortunately, transparency and communication with bidders helps to mitigate this danger by preventing disagreements or concerns from ever reaching the stage where legal arbitration is necessary.
Together, if we can get this right in more places more often, the prize for local bodies, residents and communities will be unprecedented. With central government funding being cut by around 80% in the employment support sector alone, it will fall to local commissioners to fill in the gaps in specialist employment and skills services. The repercussions of failure, therefore, could be catastrophic. Local commissioners have a range of resources to draw on, signposted in the guide for further advice and support. We need jobseekers and learners to receive the highest quality services; we hope ERSA’s new guide helps local commissioners to accomplish that goal.
Sam Windett, Head of Policy and Communications, Employment Related Services Association (ERSA)