Contracting for kindness: where do values fit into procurement and commissioning practices?

November 6, 2019

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by Ben Thurman, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Procurement, commissioning and… kindness. Three words that, at first, don’t appear to fit together. The ‘soft’, relational value of kindness, seemingly incongruous with the rational, hard-edged and clinical nature of decision-making of tendering and contracting processes. Yet, these words were thrown together at the very first meeting of the Kindness Innovation Network (KIN).

There is a growing consensus that kindness could help address public policy challenges, and it is now embedded in Scotland’s National Performance Framework. However, at times, it still does not fit easily within the dispassionate, evidence-based language of resource allocation

Nowhere is this more the case than in the way that we currently ‘do’ commissioning and procurement. Yet, at a time when such a large proportion of public money is spent by the private hand, the way that we contract goods and services becomes incredibly important. If we are serious about ambitions to make kindness more commonly part of people’s experiences – in communities and in interactions with organisations – then it is critical to explore how we can deploy commissioning processes and procurement tools to enable, rather than inhibit, kindness and relationships.

And so, since the first meeting of KIN in March 2018, a small group of people – a “mini-KIN” – have been considering what it might mean to embed kindness in this context. They have engaged with a wide array of stakeholders, spoken at and hosted events. And they have collected stories and case studies, covering a broad range of practice examples, from social care to social benefit, that point to a number of themes and principles that are consistent to ‘kind’ procurement across a variety of sectors.

Investing in relationships

Running through every successful approach to designing and delivering services were the themes of relationships and collaboration. Whether this took the form of alliance contracting, public social partnerships, or facilitating open dialogue between the different ‘tiers’ – between commissioners and contract managers, among service providers, and with communities and end users – investing in relationships early and throughout the process seems critical to achieving the best outcomes. However, most of these ‘relational procurement practices’ were mediated by an externally funded third party, and there is a need to build this into general practice, as a key component that improves experiences and outcomes and, often too, generates cost savings.

Re-imagining ‘value’

Reframing procurement as a lever to encourage kindness and achieve better outcomes for people and communities means challenging cost as the primary indicator of value. Stories from people involved in bidding for contracts highlighted the negative impact of competitive tendering, driving down unit cost at the expense of user experience and fostering competition over collaboration.

More broadly, the focus on efficiency has led to the development of metric and quantitative contract management systems that are at odds with the national policy narrative of kindness, dignity and compassion. Several organisations spoke of the restrictions of narrow KPIs, which squeezes the space for relationships in frontline services (and often do not measure what matters).

If we are to deliver on the values in the NPF, there is an important conversation about how we define and measure value in procurement and commissioning.

Encouraging flexibility

Broadly, procurement law allows for greater flexibility than is currently used in practice. Several people spoke of building skills and expertise in public procurement, so that professionals are confident using a range of approaches to suit particular communities and needs. However, there was also a sense that the default to tried-and-tested approaches is driven by other pressures.

First, the squeeze on resource and time has made it more difficult to create space for new approaches. But secondly, the level of scrutiny, and attendant blame culture, make it very risky to do things differently. Conversely, a procurement process based on open competition appears to demonstrate accountability and fairness, and protects organisations from public challenge.

While there may be role for skills development, there is also a wider need for open and honest dialogue with stakeholders at all levels, and to highlight positive stories and narratives that encourage flexibility and innovation.

 

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Very little of this will be new, particularly to those who have been thinking about commissioning in more specific contexts. Conversations as part of this “mini-KIN” have drawn on the more detailed work of others; however, they have also attempted to broaden the conversation, because of a sense that there might be common themes that apply to all aspects and levels of procurement and commissioning.

Over the next few months, by creating dialogue between all these different stakeholders, the “mini-KIN” hopes to move closer towards a shared understanding and set of principles that ensure kindness is at the heart of procurement and commissioning practice.

If you are interested in this work – whether thinking about kindness, relationships, social benefit or simply ‘being human’ – please get in touch with [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.