Commissioning and procurement – let the turf war commence…

David Noble, the CIPS CEO, said this recently in Supply Management:

Commissioning, I believe, is synonymous with strategic procurement. In fact, it is strategic procurement. The UK government also thinks so, and that’s encouraging.

Personally, I sort of agree with the first part of Noble’s comment and I said so recently on Twitter. But Dr Gordon Murray, a highly respected and experienced practitioner / academic and consultant in our profession, immediately tweeted back to say he didn’t.

Unlike Noble however, I’m far from convinced that key decision makers and opinion formers in the public sector generally believe the two are synonymous. Some may support that view, and maybe the folk he is working with closely in Whitehall are amongst them, but many don’t.  Google “procurement not the same as commissioning” and you will find many documents from local authorities and the heath sector that explicitly say that.

So let’s explore this further.

Commissioning, in public sector terms, means (I think) the process of working out what services the citizen wants or needs, contracting with organisations (which may be public, private or third sector)  to deliver those services in an effective manner, then managing and monitoring performance to provide a feedback loop back to the beginning of the process. So we talk about GPs commissioning health services; local authorities commissioning social care or other welfare services; and the expression is even creeping into, for instance, “commissioning” of waste management services.

Is it different to procurement? Well, yes and no. In traditional procurement, we work out what our organisation wants and needs. Even if it is relatively simple. like stationery or packaging, we need to understand the requirements. We then work out how to source that requirement from the market, select and contract with suppliers. Then we monitor performance. So the process is not fundamentally different to that described above as commissioning (hence my Tweet).

But there is a considerable difference between working out what stationery, IT support, raw materials, or packaging that our own organisation needs, and assessing the social care needs of hundreds of thousands of individuals across a County. It’s not the same; and neither is the performance monitoring and feedback loop that is necessary for effective commissioning.  So it is similar as a process; but the differences are significant and of course of great importance to the recipients of the commissioned services.

So perhaps procurement has a choice. Do we position ourselves to play a role as an expert adviser to the contracting part of the process, and let others manage the end to end commissioning process? Or do we re-position ourselves and show we have the ability to grow into and take on the wider end to end role? That’s a decision individuals in our profession will have to make I suspect. But I don’t think decision makers will assume that because Sue is good at buying facilities management, she will instantly or automatically be the best choice to lead commissioning of childrens' services for a council or maternity care services for a GP group.

And CIPS has to make the case carefully for the read-across. Just saying “it’s the same” won’t work. The profession needs to show that we do understand the differences, and (for instance) our professional training and education reflect this. And we can’t expect to shut expert practitioners in the key commissioning fields out of the picture. That’s one reason I get nervous when I hear talk of “licences to operate” and similar in the procurement world.

Because if we try and build walls around what we do, I fear we may find in time that those walls enclose an ever-shrinking "profession" within...

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Voices (5)

  1. PlanBee:

    The Government organisation needs to provide a service to the population (or its customers if you must). It decides to outsource it to a 3rd party (Make v buy decision).

    From then on in its a procurement, whatever fancy words you want to dress it up in.

  2. Final Furlong:

    Noble is out of date is his thinking – when was the last time he rolled up his sleeves and played a role in transforming the Work and Pensions, Justice, Social Care, Health markets etc.

    Yes, there are some significant overlaps between Commissioning and Procurement – of course there are – Commissioning can’t be delivered unless it’s underpinned by a robust procurement process. However, even in high performing manufacturing companies, I’ve never seen a procurement/supply chain person, as a key part of their role, interview a customer to determine what they really need (not want) nor set about transforming the entire related market, nor interview the end customer on their views in respect of the quality of what they received as a final product. In private sector, this is undertaken by ‘marketing’, or the ‘business’ – remember?.

    To state that “In fact, it is strategic procurement.”, when ones reflects upon the current level of maturity in prourement generally (in both the public and private sectors), is naive at best.

  3. Ian Makgill:

    Bringing in budgetary and value scrutiny should make the debate about what is procurement / commissioning obsolete.

    In far too many public sector organisations, the act of emphasising the differences between procurement and commissioning has actually been about avoiding scrutiny.

    Where commissioning staff are expected to answer the routine value for money and process questions they almost always do a good job in difficult circumstances.

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