Race To The Bottom Commissioning

Writers are obsessed not just with words but with wordcount. That innocuous, humble figure in the drop-down menu or nestling innocently in the bottom left hand corner of your screen should be a record of achievement. Instead, too often it’s a curse, an ever-tightening straitjacket on the creative flow. Blogging at least allows me to stretch out a bit as opposed to a commissioned piece for another site or magazine, but there’s lots of evidence to show people seldom read to the end of the article or  even past the opening paragraphs. If you’ve reached this point, you might well be in the minority.

Lately I’ve been a victim of the oppression of wordcount for a very different reason. Creativity has no place in the dark murky world of contract compliance and tenders.

These form an increasing proportion of the workload of any independent provider in fostering and residential work. I understand why they have appeared. After all, I’m old enough to recall the old days when social work had no systems for measuring its effectiveness, the days when we just knew and that got us nowhere. However, the last few months have taught me that while it appears we have swung to the other extreme with compliance coming out of every orifice, not only are we no nearer to truly demonstrating effectiveness, it is stifling innovation and good practice that children and young people need more desperately than ever before.

Two weeks ago I completed a tender for an authority in the southeast. I wrote 12,098 words. As each question was limited to 500 words, you can see how much ground they wanted to cover, except that this document, clearly designed by committee, was intensely repetitive. There are only so many ways you can say you are child centred, needs-based, work in partnership and strive to keep children safe.

Anyway, there were four lots to this tender for different groups of children but the responses were similar, so that’s 48,392 words in total, half a decent novel in another world. For this sought-after tender there would be at least 40 providers going for it, which means the authority will have to read and digest 1,935,680 words. The responses  must be processed to ensure the quality threshold is achieved, graded on a scale of 1 to 5 then compared to rank the providers in a tiered system.

My 48,392 words does not include any of the policies and procedures that were requested, nor any of the considerable business, insurance and financial information. Then this whole quality exercise counts for only 40% of the tender because 60% is price. This imbalance between quality and cost is common – one tender went 70-30 in favour of price.

This modern approach to commissioning is an exercise in futility. I simply do not believe that all my words will be read, let alone systematically compared with the other 1,887,288 that have been submitted. It cannot possibly be done.

I resent the fact that quality is less significant than price. More and more, authorities are looking to the bottom line of the balance rather than good practice when it comes to children’s futures. I accept that they don’t have as much money and that the cuts are not their fault. However, this is not the most effective way of using their scarce resources to provide a child centred service.

I’ve said before how prices can be kept down in the sector – you provide a placement without extra services like contact, therapy and other forms of support. Yet carers as well as children need those packages of care as the demands of fostering are ever more complex. A price-based approach does not encourage that.

With the contract comes compliance. Fine, I understand why this is important. However, what happens in practice is that each authority wants very similar information but in a slightly different form. The 5 outcomes are the same, the info they require ever so slightly different. In passing, you can work out the problems affecting every authority by the nature of their requirements. A heavy emphasis on, say, staff checks or allegations means they’ve had a real problem in the recent past.

The lack of consistency means providers have to collect different statistics for every authority. Providers are of course inspected by Ofsted but this seems to be irrelevant when it comes to the tenders and perish the thought that Ofsted might want stats that are in any way similar to those required by authorities. Ofsted for example uses ethnic monitoring categories that do not match with any other I have come across.

All of this costs money. Providers will have to pass on the costs of extra posts and databases in one way or another, and goodness what the local authority staff costs are in processing 1,935,680 words.

Three other southeast tenders are between 3 and 5 months late because authorities are unable to reach a conclusion. Two face legal challenges because they request information that breaches data protection legislation. Some simply do not realise that having a policy for everything does not guarantee better quality. One organisation was censured for not having a child protection policy on gangs, but what do they expect. “For children and young people we do all we can to keep them safe but if they join a gang, sod ’em.” It’s reached the stage where I would be tempted to submit that.

Forgive the ranting. It’s helped me let off a bit of steam. I’ve just spent the day on a Section 11 audit for a council in East Anglia. It’s about safeguarding and that’s important, really, I get it, but question whether this is the right way to go about it. Self-assessment. Frankly unlikely that I’m going to give a score of anything less than perfect. ‘Do you have a policy on such and such?’ Answer: “Yes I do have a policy on such and such.” It will keep them happy because this is the fourth one I have filled in and everyone has been happy with that answer so far. Doesn’t say how good this provider is or the difference good safeguarding and risk-management makes.

The Fostering Regulations require that organisations send their child protection policies to every authority they work with or could work with. I know another provider who sent out 42 responses and did not hear back from one of them, not even an acknowledgement. Utterly futile.

It has reached the point where I don’t know what piece of legislation it is Section 11 of and I’m past the point of caring. 1,974 words, if you’re interested. I’m hacked off – you can tell, can’t you – because it’s a waste, of precious resources and of my creativity and innovation as a practitioner. I have several ideas stillborn because there is simply no time. Putting them into action would improve the well-being of children in care far more than any of the compliance mechanisms do.

But if by some chance you’ve bucked the stats and reached this far, have a look at two recent pieces that are considered, definitely non-ranty but point out the consequences. “Commissioning services drives up costs” from Public Service Europe and “race to the bottom commissioning” from the Third Sector. Commissioning is important. It needs to focus on value and quality. There must be a better way. That’s 1213 words I wanted to write.

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