Compact in action: Commissioning

Should the agreement be updated to cover the commissioning of services from charities?

Commissioning probably causes more disputes between the public and voluntary sectors than anything else. Yet it is not included in the national Compact's five codes of practice.

This is because 10 years ago, when the Compact was created, commissioning was less widely used. But the funding landscape has changed, and the document may finally be about to catch up.

"Commissioning is not covered by the Compact, but I think it should be," said Sir Bert Massie, Commissioner for the Compact, at the Compact debate in Birmingham organised by his office last month.

Most charities will welcome his words. But there are concerns that unless there is a fundamental culture change in town halls and primary care trusts, any new code on commissioning will be ineffective.

John O'Sullivan, chief executive of homelessness charity St Johns Housing Trust in Lowestoft, Suffolk, says too many commissioners are reluctant to work with charities when it comes to designing services.

"Our experience locally is that commissioners are not really keen on it," he says. "They think that if we are involved in planning services there is a conflict of interest if we ever come to bid for them."

One of the key messages of the Cabinet Office and the Improvement and Development Agency's new voluntary sector training programme for 3,000 commissioners is that contract rules are more flexible than many of them realise. But O'Sullivan, who also chairs the national advisory council for Homeless Link, says this message isn't getting across and that unless commissioners accept the need to involve charities in the design of services and contract specifications, attempts to get it across will be futile. "They are nervous about breaching European regulations and conflicts of interest, but this is largely out of ignorance," he says.

Charities, he says, encounter "impenetrable barriers" when talking to the public sector on the subject. "We do have to push back at commissioners because many are quite clueless," he says. "The right thing is for us to get round the table together and design services and specifications in a way that will achieve the best objectives. If we want the best outcomes we want people who are experienced at running these services to tell commissioners what they need."

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