Change that leads to better lives

When Tendering Just Doesn't Work

It’s amazing that when there is a perceived wisdom about how something is done, then no matter how obvious the evidence is that there is a problem – we can enter collective denial. I am increasingly thinking this is the case with that part of commissioning known fondly as ‘purchasing’.

In writing an article for a forthcoming journal, I have had the delight of re-visiting the 1989 White Paper ‘Caring for People’. For those who have forgotten or were just plain too young to have been around then, this was the policy that introduced the social care world to (amongst other things) commissioning and care management. It reminded me of how the original concepts of these two great processes were remarkably different to how they have turned out to be.

Commissioning, for example was supposed to be significantly about market shaping – helping to open up new options through the commissioner working in partnership (yes, in partnership) with providers to help ensure that what people wanted and needed was available in cost effective ways.

Instead, we have tendering. Now, I’m not against the concept per se, but I’ve seen (and sometimes been at the receiving end of) too many dubious tender processes to believe that it really adds to the sum value of human happiness. The objective, surely, should be to find the best people to deliver the desired ‘goods’ and the process used should be designed with that goal in mind. Every now and then tendering does achieve that. (How else did NDTi with its HSA and CDC partners win the Preparing for Adulthood tender from the Department for Education!)

Too often it does not.

The problem is that the process itself has frequently become the end goal. As a result, the paperwork, timescales, complexity and ill-informed rigidity of decision-making results in poor services winning out. I offer as evidence, My Lord, three significant pieces of work that NDTi has undertaken for Government over the last year or so. In each case, problems with tendering were found to be a block to delivering government policy:

  • In evaluating the DfE’s Short Break Pathfinder initiative, we found the complexity of local authority tender processes were deterring small scale, often family-led providers from coming forward despite them being recognised as offering some of the best short break options;
  • In the Office for Disability Issue’s Support, Advocacy and Brokerage project, tendering and procurement systems were seen to be a block to User Led Organisations being able to compete fairly and effectively represent local people;
  • In developing the commissioning good practice guidance for services for people labeled as challenging, the places that had made progress had stepped outside or ‘skewed’ tendering processes in order to find the right organisations to deliver the right individualised support.

Many years ago, an excellent consultant called Simon Standish led role-development work for the Health Authority senior management team I was a member of. He helped the Finance and Human Resource Directors understand that their role was to do what was needed so that the service delivery managers could get good quality services delivered – in budget with the right staff in place. It was liberating for everyone involved. Maybe it is time for those responsible for tendering to understand their purpose in life – and the purpose is getting the best outcome, not the most impressive tender process.

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