Naomi Hulston: The Covid-19 silver-lining – better relationships between charities and commissioners

15 Sep 2020 Voices

Naomi Hulston from Catch22 reflects on the improvements the charity has seen recently between public service commissioners and providers

As a third sector provider of public services we are all too used to the merry-go-round of bidding for, winning, losing and delivering contracts. At Catch22, we currently deliver around 90 public services. That means we hold relationships with commissioners up and down the country and across sectors from local to national government.

It also means that we understand the complexities of designing services which will satisfy commissioner requirements and tick the right boxes on the paperwork, but still manage to help the people we exist to serve.  

Ultimately, we do all of this so that we can use our experience to help people lead safer, healthier, happier and more fulfilled lives. And this means we know just how crucial a relational approach to public service contracting is. 

The importance of the commissioner-provider relationship

I was lucky enough to take part in the keynote panel session this week for the Government Outcomes Lab at the Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government. It was an internationally renowned panel, brought together to discuss the importance of relationships in contracts which exist to create social change. 

At Catch22 we have spoken about the importance of the commissioner-provider relationship for many years, with a focus on how, all-too-often, contracts encourage us to hit the target but miss the point. 

People are complicated. The services we build to support them must be flexible enough to account for this complexity.

We have said for many years that there must be a shift in focus from targets that promote increased output to ones that increase impact and good outcomes. But, with the onset of the pandemic, we have seen a shift towards this model, with a focus on the relational. Entrepreneurial third sector organisations have been able to deliver services more quickly and effectively because other organisations (whether public sector or private) are not set up to be as agile or are too bureaucratic .

Commissioners and funders alike have a renewed appetite for change, allowing those delivering public services, such as Catch22, to get on with it and do what they do best. And it’s working. Many of our commissioners have been brilliant in giving us the flexibility to deliver for the people who need our services. We are seeing a new recognition of what is fair, such as the shifting of payment schedules. The reasonable cost of a service is being considered, putting social value at the heart of the delivery. The response from a public service perspective has seen many providers in the third sector roll up their sleeves and adapt, at pace.  

The speed at which Covid-19 hit meant that there wasn’t time for lengthy meetings and target settings – it was a case of ‘people need help now, and we need organisations to gear up to deliver quickly and effectively.’

How do we make sure this continues?

But the question is now, how do we see this emphasis on trust and relationships continue in contracting? We can’t revert to the old way of doing things, ignoring the positives we have seen. We have an opportunity to think differently about how public services are delivered. We must continue to see a commissioner-provider relationship which:  

  • Is led by a relational approach to contracting: A permanent shift in focus; contracts that bring organisations together to realise a common purpose.  
  • Defines social value: Services which are centred around purpose, care and community. 
  • Is based on trust: There is consideration of what the actual cost of delivering a service and trust that the delivery partner will do what’s best to get the right outcome for people.
  • Is centred on meaningful collaboration: We must collaborate effectively as sectors; private, voluntary and public – this is a time to pull together to achieve real change.

If we focus on these aspects of the commissioning relationship, we can also get the balance right between money and mission. When money is exchanged in any situation, we know that the emphasis on getting things right is even higher.

The stakes involved in helping someone to lead a better life are high enough. Many charity CEOs spend a lot of time debating the money vs mission argument. As I see it, we have to get the money side right because it enables our frontline staff to do their jobs safely, and effectively, ultimately saving peoples’ lives.

Mission is crucial, but it needs to form a part of the focus of the contract, supported by the right payment terms. If we all want to innovate, to deliver better public services, commissioners and third sector providers alike need to build strong, trusted relationships to get this balance just right. 

Naomi Hulston is chief operating officer at Catch22

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