All local authorities hope to govern in a way that promotes well-being and tackles societal problems at their root. But with finances slashed and demand for public services swelling, struggling councils are seeing these objectives drift further and further out of reach.

What can be done? A new model of public service commissioning is evolving across England that may hold the key.

The word crisis’ has become commonplace in local government over the last five years. Reeling from cuts of up to 30%, councils are faced with the seemingly impossible task of stretching dwindling funds ever further. But new strategies are out there. By embracing the skills, time and energy of those who know most about public services – the people who use them – and switching focus towards identifying and achieving the long-term outcomes that really matter, councils are breathing new life into the services they commission.

This handbook and practical guide is the result of eight years of collaboration between the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and local authorities. It sets out a model for designing, commissioning and delivering services so that they:

  • Focus on commissioning for outcomes’, meaning the long-term changes that services and other activities achieve
  • Promote co-production to make services more effective and bring in new resources, by working in partnership with the people using their services
  • Promote social value by placing social, environmental and economic outcomes at the heart of commissioning.

Our approach recognises and addresses what commissioners perceive as the most common shortcomings of conventional commissioning’ practices. It shows how a focus on the triple bottom line’ (social, environmental and economic impacts) and on co-production can enable commissioners to get real value for money, achieve well-being and prevent harm. It has already been applied to commissioning across in-house, grant-funded and external providers.

We set out the ideas and practice of commissioning for outcomes, co-production and social value – illustrating these with examples, case studies, practical tips and methods that we have used with local authorities to put this approach into place. The model follows a three-phase commissioning cycle – from developing insight, to planning support and activities, and then supporting and monitoring the delivery of these. Each phase includes many activities that are already part of most councils’ commissioning processes, but these have been adapted to support and promote the key ideas at the heart of NEF’s approach. For example, we show how local authorities can:

Develop insight

Into what outcomes are important to people using services, and what kinds of support could achieve these, including:
  1. How to identify people’s needs and their aspirations to inform the strategic vision of the service, including how to co-produce needs assessments
  2. How to identify the assets and resources which will help to achieve a defined set of outcomes and involve the wider community, including how to use asset mapping to co-produce assets assessments
  3. How to use creative methods, such as appreciative inquiry and participatory research, to get beyond service data and develop a rich picture of how councils’ resources could be most effectively used.

Effectively plan

Support and activities to meet the needs and build on the assets of local people, including:

  1. How to co-produce an outcomes framework that reflects local needs and aspirations across social, economic and environmental outcomes
  2. How to change procurement processes and paperwork to support the co-produced outcomes framework and ensure that they reflect the strategic vision of the service and encourage providers to consider social, environmental and economic value
  3. How to build the awareness and capacity of local providers to support and promote this approach.

Improve delivery

Including:

  1. How to monitor and evaluate social, economic and environmental value
  2. How to co-produce service assessments with people who use services
  3. How to align scrutiny and oversight with the new commissioning approach
  4. How to gather insight to improve and adapt services over time, through coaching, peer assessment and mystery shopping, and by using customised self-reflection tools.
This guide also includes a substantial Resources’ section to point commissioners towards materials that can help them deepen their understanding of the core concepts, and put the approach into practice. Our approach to commissioning cannot conjure new money out of thin air to support existing service arrangements.
What it can do is provide a framework, a set of principles and practical guidance to re-assess how services are currently provided. It can help to re-focus services on the outcomes that really matter to those who are intended to benefit from them. The potential impact and value is enormous, and this practical guide sets out the core ideas and key parts of putting it into practice.