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Commissioning in complexity

Josepha Reynolds

The systems which exist to deliver public services to people are ‘complex’ rather than ‘complicated’. Complex problems cannot be solved but can be systematically managed, whereas complicated problems can be solved by following the same blueprint for a solution each time.

The complexity that public sector commissioners are working in makes for a challenging environment – and one that invites innovation. The most important example of this is that commissioners in local authorities need to work with their counterparts in other organisations (such as the NHS or the police), as well as with providers and residents, to design and deliver sustainable new services that manage demand across the whole system.

Working effectively in this way requires a significant level of behaviour change by local authorities, partners, providers, service users and their families. But it can be hard for commissioners to find the time and space to make this happen. So how can IMPOWER help councils reframe commissioning in order to address complexity?

Our answer is EDGEWORK, which enables clients to understand complex systems. An early stage of our work with clients often involves the use of our ‘Holding up the mirror’ inventive method. This enables clients to see their existing commissioning practices from a different perspective, therefore setting the stage for them to reframe their approach to commissioning. There are 3 key areas to consider:

  • Setting inclusive ambition

Commissioning cannot be an activity that takes place in a silo. Commissioners need to influence a range of different system interfaces (e.g. health, social care, education) and stakeholders (e.g. council staff, providers) in order to create the right market and maximise impact. This requires focusing on behaviour and culture to create a shared ambition for services and enact real transformation.

  • Influencing and innovating

Successful commissioning in a complex environment requires an understanding that public services cannot be completely controlled and managed. Instead, commissioners need to widen the lens and look beyond what they directly control to what they can influence. This requires coproducing solutions with residents, providers and partners, and sharing responsibility outside of the local authority, for example by budget pooling with partners, or by devolving budgets to local communities.

  • Focusing on impact

Public services exist to support people, and the impact of services on people’s lives needs to be at the centre of any discussion around commissioning. Working within a complex system means that there is a need for different ways to demonstrate, measure and show success. That might entail the removal of all formal performance indicators from a contract, or the introduction of a more mature measurement process that moves away from solely looking at activity (e.g. number of phone calls made) to measuring impact (e.g. helping someone remain at home).

Commissioning is a key enabler to support and deliver sustainable change and deliver better public services. To do this, commissioners need to successfully navigate complexity to maximise their impact and support their transformation agenda. Please contact us to find out how IMPOWER can help.

Written by

Josepha Reynolds



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