The Department for Work and Pensions should take note of a new approach by NHS England to working with the voluntary sector, according to Asheem Singh, the director of public policy at the charity leaders group Acevo.
Singh has praised what he calls an innovative new approach from the health service, in which it "seeks to get the third sector involved from the outset".
This approach is outlined in a letter from Bob Ricketts, director of commission support services strategy and market development at NHS England, to both Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, and Peter Holbrook, his counterpart at Social Enterprise UK.
Ricketts says in the letter that NHS England is encouraging bidders in the ongoing procurement process for the lead provider framework to engage more deeply with the voluntary sector.
NHS England has set a higher quality threshold for potential providers, Ricketts writes: "We are therefore encouraging all bidders to strengthen their offers substantially during the invitation to tender stage, in particular by bringing together best in class services, including from small and medium-sized enterprises and voluntary organisations, through stronger partnership arrangements," he says in the letter.
NHS England will also help NHS commissioning support units that wish to spin out into staff mutuals by working with the Cabinet Office on a new development programme, the letter says.
Singh said the procurement changes contrasted with the approach of the DWP, as outlined in its Commissioning Strategy document published at the end of last month. In this document, the DWP says it wants charities to be part of a competitive, open market when procuring services in the Work Programme and other schemes.
"It’s a divide that goes to the heart of government and its approach to public services," Singh said. "The DWP focuses its commissioning strategy on the delivery of centrally determined outcomes, in which the voluntary sector is a factotum to central diktat; whereas NHS England’s new approach is more innovative, seeking to get the third sector involved from the outset, not only advising on how to deliver services but also on how to commission those services in the first place.
"The DWP should take note. If the NHS England approach successfully folds the best efforts of charities and social enterprises into the design of the commissioning process – and so creates better services – a lot of good will be done. We will monitor both departments' next moves with interest," he said.
However, the DWP’s new strategy has been given a cautious welcome by the think-tank NPC. It said the document recognised that payment-by-results contracts were sometimes unsuitable for dealing with individuals deemed the hardest to help in the Work Programme.
Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, said: ‘This signal of some movement from the DWP on the way those furthest from the labour market should be treated in payment-by-results contracts is welcome, even though we believe they should go further still."