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Urban Forumís response to the Open Public Services White Paper


This is Urban Forum's response to the Coalition Government's Open Public Services White Paper (published in July, 2011), in which the Cabinet Office sets out its policy framework for how it wants public services to be owned, delivered and funded in the future, and the roles of the individual citizen and the state in this.

The White Paper sets out an overview of their programme for public services over the next few years. Some of the measures outlined are already underway (Free Schools, Academies Act 2010), some are being taken forward in legislation currently being debated in Parliament (the Health and Social Care Bill and the Localism Bill), and some will be subject to further development and consultation.

Individual services
1. How best, in individual services and on a case-by-case basis, can we ensure that people have greater choice between diverse, quality providers?

It's sensible that services should be more tailored to local needs and aspirations; however there are several concerns raised by both Navca and Urban Forum, particularly around the proposed speed of this sort of transition, as well as the potential loss of wider social values within the commissioning process. Offering services at an individual level which currently many medium and small voluntary and community sector organisations will no longer be ‘public' as such. What evidence exists to suggest that the market has developed a wide enough range of choice yet? A great deal of time is needed to create both the markets that will be needed to offer adequate choice within the personalisation of services, as lessons from the social care agenda tell us to ensure that there is no loss of opportunity to embed a wider social value into the development of public services.

There is no mention of co-production in the paper or the crucial need for commissioners to have a strong input of service users from all sections of the community. Individuals will be expected to navigate their way through a number of different service providers (subcontractors of subcontractors) with necessarily having a meaningful way of holding providers to account and not always with the local support and advocacy needed to help them identify their needs in the first place. A public service means that a public body has designed and commissioned the service and is accountable in a direct way and it is vital that time and resources are put in at the beginning of the process to ensure that the public aspect to this kind of purchasing is not lost as a consequence of individual purchasing.

2) Consistent with the Government's fiscal plans, what further opportunities exist to target funding to help the poorest, promote social mobility and provide fair access to public services?

Local voluntary and community sector networks play a very strong role in ensuring that the poorest in society are supported and have a voice. Specifically, these support organisations offer a meaningful way to assist in targeting funds to help the poorest as well as provide advocacy and information services which enable the most marginalised in society have access to local decision-making, campaigning, skills, knowledge, to solve their own problems.

In line with Navca's viewpoint, we believe that fair access to public services rarely takes place without such support. Individual circumstance and geographic location mean that differences of opportunity and outcomes exist. The government needs to seriously consider how it can manage service quality and quantity variation particularly where in certain geographic locations there may be little incentive for market growth and therefore limited choice for individuals. Commissioners in such areas will need to be much more skilled in understanding the causes of such market failure and work alongside potential providers to ensure needs are met.

Neighbourhood services

1) What is the scope for neighbourhood councils to take greater control over local services?

Local voluntary and community sector organisations currently deliver many of the services mentioned as neighbourhood services such as environmental improvements, licensing, parking, and taking over libraries etc. However, this could be much greater given the scope of the forthcoming Localism Bill and the potential rights which neighbourhood councils will potentially have, as long as they are not diluted through current ongoing amendments to the Bill. We are concerned however that the implementation of these reforms could favour large providers and contradict the government's localism agenda.

We support the principle of devolving services to the neighbourhood level, but we feel there are major problems with regard to implementation.  It is important to engage people in developing neighbourhood councils in neighbourhoods where engagement, confidence, skills and capacity are traditionally low. Development of neighbourhood councils in this area will involve more intensive work. This requires funding, the source of which is currently unclear given the current cuts of local authority and VCS funding. However, if this support is not resourced it will create greater inequality in that deprived areas will have less control and lower quality services than areas where social and financial capital are higher.

Neighbourhood councils would need to be set up as part of a wider ‘community mobilisation' programme. In order for the neighbourhood council to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the community, they need to have networks reaching out to all sections of the community, rather than sufficient in and of themselves. Having a network like this would help give the community backing to do what it needs to do, ensure that service delivery is holistic and joined-up and ensure that enough residents engage and contribute to the work of the neighbourhood council.

It is important to be clear about what powers neighbourhood councils have and what potential value they have for a community. In areas where many initiatives have come and gone and not provided great benefit to the community, people are often very distrustful of government institutions and initiatives. Unless the neighbourhood council's scope and powers are clearly communicated, the council might simply be seen as ‘just another institution that won't listen to us'. (see more in Q3)

2) What help will neighbourhood councils need to enable them to run any services devolved to them?

The key to neighbourhood councils being able to run services effectively is greater clarity over form and function of neighbourhood councils as well as their contribution towards localism. In addition, intelligent commissioning and procurement practice is needed which takes into consideration the scope and expectations of potential neighbourhood councils as service providers (often of small or ‘below the radar' services).

New skills for commissioners are crucial, as is the need for procurement teams to understand the potential red tape that often prohibits neighbourhood groups from ticking all the boxes in a commissioning process. It is crucial that services are developed and procured with sustainability in mind. Local authorities can offer support to neighbourhood councils in a number of ways such as helping them to establish larger ‘commissioning networks' or ‘service delivery networks' (similar to how previous ‘area boards' worked) between neighbourhood councils which would assist them in tendering for larger contracts, researching the market, and helping them by setting up commissioning boards which offer a number or places for VCS representatives.

Further, neighbourhood councils will need:

• Community mapping/neighbourhood planning to identify need
• Setting up the structures and business planning
• Financial accountability and generating funds (self-sustainability)
• Engaging people to ensure democratic accountability
• Tendering and commissioning service providers (and engaging local people in this)
• Managing service contracts on an ongoing basis
• Assistance in managing staff
• Evaluation services (by the NC itself but also developing community/user evaluation)
• Support for partnership development where community groups want to collaborate with other providers to co-design and co-deliver services.

It would be difficult to see all the functions of a neighbourhood council managing neighbourhood services being achieved without a small team of paid staff working for them. It is unlikely that volunteers who have families, jobs, other responsibilities will have the capacity.

3) What would make it easier to establish new neighbourhood councils in areas where local people want them?
 There is an issue in the phrasing of the question - ‘where people want them'. Does this imply that neighbourhood councils will only be established where people already see the potential benefits? Government may need to do a ‘selling job' to promote the potential value of neighbourhood councils to all communities. Again, unless this is done, the issue of inequalities between disadvantaged communities and those more able to take advantage or see the benefits will become a greater issue.

Neighbourhood councils will not work unless there is major support for capacity building across the community. Neighbourhood councils have to be part of their community so that everyone can see what they do, how they work, what value they have, how as individuals, they can contribute to them. In-depth community engagement needs to be integrated in the community to map needs, identifying required services, and decide on who should provide those services. Support also needs to go into supporting community members to provide their own services.

In support of Navca's response we would also like to see more consideration given to collaborative approaches with commissioners to co-design services in partnership with communities and civil society organisations and the adoption of asset-based approaches focussed on building social capital.

Neighbourhood councils will stand a much better chance of inception and sustainability if there is a serious budget to work with. Therefore, the development of things such as the proposed Community Budgets should be an upfront part of the process.

Clarity is also needed as to what the extent of the powers of neighbourhood councils should have. Government could run national scenarios and guidelines for example, showcasing the various powers that neighbourhood councils would have in different situations, built on by consulting with communities throughout the country. Finally, the Government should also make it clear on how other pieces of legislation have a bearing on neighbourhood councils such as neighbourhood planning and other aspects off the Localism Bill.

4) How do we ensure appropriate accountability for services
Whilst community and user evaluation of services should be a priority, when considering requirements for neighbourhood councils and VCS managed services, it's important that increased accountability and transparency are appropriate to the size of the organisation's contract so not to place a disproportionate bureaucratic burden on smaller organisations.

Larger quality standards bodies could work with community members to build awareness and criteria in how they evaluate services. For example Ofsted may prioritise results but a section of parents of any one school may also value a school being a caring environment where children learn to develop confidence, social skills, self-reliance etc. Bodies should work together to develop more appropriate evaluation frameworks in a way that builds up the capacity of the users to judge and make comment on service delivery. Neighbourhood councils could co-ordinate this ‘evaluation partnership' but they would need resources to do it.

Ultimately services should be accountable to some form of democratic mandate and this should be supported by the local authority. Over-stretched local authorities already struggle to scrutinise, monitor, inspect and set standards and this will be more difficult with far more providers and far fewer resources. There is also the issue of a potential conflict between the role of local government in holding providers to account and maintaining standards, and its role in ensuring free competition.

Commissioned services
1) What is the scope to extend and/or deepen the commissioning approach across public services?
We would like to see more consideration given to collaborative approaches to public service improvement, with commissioners co-designing services in partnership with communities and civil society organisations and the adoption of asset-based approaches focused on building social capital. Contract size must also be addressed as there is an assumption that larger contracts are more efficient and offer better value for money but there is little evidence for this stated.

The Government's e-Marketplace registration is a good idea for contracts under 100K, as well as the proposal from the Local Government Groups to introduce a standardised Pre-Qualification Questionnaire at a local level. It is crucial however that the standardised PQQ is accessible and based on good practice. For example, the Office of Government Commerce ‘Below the threshold' PQQ[1]. In addition - there needs to be a great deal more attention to the potential for small VCS and Social Enterprises to deliver (non-specific) ‘back office' type services such as catering, IT and events management.

2) What new skills and training will commissioners need?

In line with Navca and other Urban Forum members' concerns, there is a continuing need to bring commissioners, procurement officers and voluntary and community sector providers to learn from each other and find joint solutions that can help prioritise the needs of local communities.

Commissioners will have a duty to ensure that upfront financing and payment by results don't disadvantage small local organisations that have less access to finance. Measures such as ‘payment by results' need to be fully tested and implemented gradually along with support and finance to small organisations to ensure that new barriers aren't created. Whilst the Investment and Contract Readiness fund is a step forward, commissioners and procurement teams need to be fit for purpose with skills and understanding of the voluntary sectors support needs.

 Wiltshire County Council are doing some interesting work on disaggregating financing methods such as ‘payment by results' to ensure that VCS groups commissioned to provide services, receive the required proportion of their payment to ensure effective delivery.

Suggested skills for commissioners are as follows:
• market development;
• coupling competition with collaboration and a coherent, joined up public service offer;
• Appropriately using new finance methods such as payment by results and social impact bonds;
• measuring and quantifying success;
• conflicts of interest with in-house provision or new public service mutuals;
• encouraging innovation and proposals for new services from communities;
• working with procurement to overcome legal barriers in advance of the commissioning process;
• handling and using new types of 'open data' and information;
• Creating a level playing field for the delivery of services

More Information





Kate Hathway
September 2011

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Tuesday, 04 October 2011
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