The big debate – Commissioning or Procurement – but does it matter?

We’ve  talked at some length about the commissioning / procurement argument in the public sector, provoked by the recent Civil Service Reform Plan. The tasks that sit within this relatively new role of  “commissioning”,  as generally defined, do look very much like what we in the procurement profession would see as strategic procurement. Market analysis / creation, negotiation and contracting, contract and performance management...

So what makes something “commissioning” rather than procurement?

The best I can come up with is that the commissioner has direct budget holding  responsibility for the delivery of the service provided and the outcomes delivered - and that the commissioned  service is delivered to service users outside the organisation. Whereas "procurement" does not usually hold the budget or the accountability for service and outcomes.  And I think the delivery to a wider audience is key - so I don’t believe for instance that people buying consultancy for internal purposes are doing anything other than “procurement”, even if they want to call it commissioning because it sounds better!

Anyway, is this rise of a new commissioning “profession” something we should be worried about? Certainly some of the senior people we heard from in Government last week believe it isn’t.  Where I do agree with them is that the taxpayer, or the citizen receiving the “commissioned” heath, social care or whatever services don’t really care about the designation of the individual who contracted for the services they receive.

What they care about is that the commissioning was done well, that services meet their needs, and are good value / affordable.

So does it really matter if these activities – growing in scale and scope as more work is transferred to third parties, rather than being done by public bodies themselves – are called commissioning rather than strategic procurement?

As we’ve said, not to the citizen. Not really either to the top level of public sector management – chief executives, CFOs or permanent secretaries. Not even – I would say, with the greatest of respect – to the senior procurement professionals in the public sector who have been successful already and, in some cases, see themselves primarily as senior civil servants rather than procurement professionals.

It also doesn’t matter to the individuals who are commissioners. They may still choose to define themselves as procurement professionals, but they have the choice of carving themselves out a new role or profession as commissioners instead.  We can’t force them into being something they don’t want to be; as Sally Collier of the Cabinet Office said to us last week, “We will never convince or convert 100,000 commissioners that they should be procurement people and nor should we...”

So, is everything OK? Is this a storm in a teacup? Everything’s fine, nothing for the procurement profession to worry about?  Well, not quite. There are two stakeholders – or stakeholder groups – for whom this does matter, and for whom it is potentially bad news.  We’ll talk about them tomorrow.

Voices (6)

  1. Sam Unkim:

    Hi Christine
    But does a commissioner have the skills to deliver the value into a commercial relationship, or are they primarily concerned with seamless provision of a service

    Hi Nego
    Just wondered I you are aware you are posting to “Spend Matters”
    Its a (“the” even) purchasing blog.

    1. bitter and twisted:

      Does a ‘purchaser’ have the skills to assess the needs of a person?

      That seems the root of the distinction – whether the essence of the job is getting the very best deal out of a supplier, or deciding what the right thing to buy is.

      1. Ian Heptinstall:

        B&T, the second looks more like what I see as “procurement” than the former.

        Local optimisation – let the budget manager decide unilaterally what they want, and possibly from whom to buy it, then get procurement to sort the price & detailed stuff – is not the route to better value and performance.

  2. Christine Morton:

    This debate has been going on and on ad nauseum since I moved to this country 10 years ago. This isn’t hard, folks, it really isn’t. Procurement is purchasing goods and services to fill a particular need; commissioning is purchasing goods and services to fill the particular health and social care needs of a person. The end. Can we move on now?

    1. Nego:

      Leaving aside the shameful paliticol horse trading that has led to the current position, I am not hopeful that these changes are in any way transformational. One of the problems with the NHS is its terrible introspection and the self-serving behaviour of all of the factions involved. The role of politicans is another matter. I consider myself reasonably well informed and literate but all I see shaping up is a great deal of upheaval, a merry-go-round of the same old faces changing roles, a continuance of the endemic my interests first’ culture of the public sector, thus little real change. My experience of the NHS over a lifetime (during which it has saved my life on several occasions) is that acute care works and so does the private sector. Both of these sectors work because they are focussed upon the needs of the customer. Step outside of these areas and you are invariably treated as a third party to your ailment, with little respect and an impediment to the smooth running of the ingrained and PC mentality.The NHS is overloaded and cannot continue in its current state; simply because it is free at the point of consumption leads to wasteful calls being made upon its services. The cost of modern medicine is also growing and will continue to do so. There is a knee-jerk reaction from all sectors if the private sector is mentioned in the same breath as medicine (invariably irrationally). If a respected high street brand such as Marks and Spencer or John Lewis announced it had won a contract to provide certain areas of care, there would be public acceptance and the customer could rest assured their needs were being met (and respectfully). However, notwithstanding all of the above, I feel that Age Concern has a way to go to identify with and connect with the interest group it purports to represent. Please do not consider me disrespectful if I point out that your blog owes more to the newspeak of an ingroup than a serious and informed attempt to speak to older people.

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