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Professional Commissioning manages and shapes the local ecosystem, it does not simply purchase in a market

“Commissioning means marshalling resources and building relationships”

Rachel Silcock, Commissioning Officer, Plymouth Council, E3M 10/2020

Scroll down for: Outcomes | Process | Principles | Evidence


Commissioning public services for citizens is fundamentally different to commercial purchasing by public authorities.

Public Service needs have complex causes and effects, are not determined by an institution’s own managerial assessment of its own operation and are not delivered to the public authority.

Public services are about people’s needs. Social Policy is about identifying need and organising available resources to meet it.

A well-shaped, well-managed public service ecosystem will stabilise, underpin and actively support and contribute to the local economy.


Improvement, reform and innovation are unlikely to be purchasable on the market, and social need requiring Social Policy intervention is by definition not met by the market. If it were, no intervention would be required.

Procurement law is about fair market competition and is not an automatic means to deliver the best Public Services. It may do, when market competition equates to optimum public service delivery, but often that is not a straight equation.

Procurement should be used with creativity, application and positive, reasonable interpretation when it’s used at all. Commissioners must recognise that the applicable regulations are purposive, permissive and flexible and that many assertions about what is not possible are based on mythology and misunderstanding.

“Commissioning” Public Services is much wider and more managerial than public procurement. It requires consultation on, analysis and assessment of need. It requires judgment about how need may be met with at least basic full coverage, sufficient quality and affordability, and, more appropriately, with high quality, sustainability, long-term improvement, preventative effect and reducing cost.

Commissioning mechanisms include consultative community and supplier engagement; grants and preferential loans; purpose-driven investment and co-investment; community and community resource mobilisation, including through asset transfer; purpose-driven community partnerships; and procured service contracts.

The commissioning authority will need to engage in and/or support, enquiry, research and development, experimentation, pilot projects, market shaping and development, accepting uncertainty, risk and failure as a necessary part and a learning part of the process.

The starting point for meeting a social need is never a standard invitation to tender, based on pre-existing assumptions.


The precise legal obligation in relation to public services is not under procurement law, it is the Duty of Best Value: “to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which [a public authority’s] functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficient and effectiveness” and “to consult representatives of persons who use or are likely to use [the] services” (Section 3 Local Government Act 1999). 

But Procurement and “Best Value” have increasingly become wrongly treated as synonymous. Since the 1980s, the predominant macro-economic thesis has been that the pursuit of profit, within competitive markets, delivering shareholder investment returns, benefits the whole of society. This has made social policy subordinate to economic orthodoxy.

Social Policy is about identifying need and organising available resources to meet it – this is an active professional public duty, with market procurement as just one available and insufficient mechanism.

This was recognised by the European Commission’s Social Business Initiative, which sought to adapt the Competition Law regimes of Public Procurement and State Aid towards social policy. This was an important factor behind the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, especially in providing for the Light Touch Regime and Innovation Partnership and the “good”, permitted State Aid category of “Services of General Economic Interest”.

 “Market” is therefore only part of a frame for public services. “Market” is not what a commissioning authority visits to purchase, but part of a local environment and ecosystem it seeks to shape and manage.


Leicestershire’s Children’s Innovation Partnership (CIP) between Leicestershire County Council (LCC) and Barnardo’s.

This partnership has enabled the co-design and delivery of innovative services to address failing areas in looked after children’s services. The council designed a new process to identify a social partner to work in partnership to design and deliver innovative services across the whole Looked After Children (LAC) system.

Oldham Council has adopted a highly strategic, overarching commissioning model, led by the three inter-related Social Value themes: Thriving Communities; Co-operative Services and Inclusive Economy.

This incorporates a community partnership methodology engaging: citizens; local employers and SMEs; the VCFSE sector, anchor institutions, such as Oldham College, Oldham Leisure, and Oldham Library; statutory agencies, such as the police; and local housing providers.

The partnership working, placed based approach was applied particularly to health and wellbeing, in seeking to co-ordinate local services, through a local ecosystem re-modelling.

It addressed challenges including inadequate integration between health and social care and barriers to the two systems being co-ordinated; inefficient and expensive health engagements at primary and secondary level; insufficient attention to the inter-connected, multiple needs of individuals; disconnected, non-integrated care and VCSE provision and the primacy of traditional, transactional, short-term public service competitive contracting and the undervaluing of purpose-driven community asset mobilisation, collaboration and co-ordination.

The project has generated quantifiable reductions in GP appointments, A&E attendances and non-elective bed days.

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