Three, the magic number

Published: 3rd October 2018
Guy Robinson, our Director of Housing and Support, sings the praises of Hounslow LBC’s innovative three-stage commissioning model, and urges more authorities to follow.

At Look Ahead, we believe commissioners should think differently about commissioning in social care and, in doing so, there is an opportunity for them to save money, reduce out of area placements and improve the service experience for users.

A bold statement, but why do we say this? Well, at the end of last year, we won a contract with Hounslow LBC to provide all of the young people and young parents supported accommodation services in the borough.

Traditionally the borough, like many others, had used the historic block commissioned supported housing model for young people. However, on this occasion, they decided to join together several different contracts into one large contract working across children’s services and housing.

In terms of commissioning Hounslow LBC crafted a bespoke three-stage process which provided an opportunity to hold workshops, instead of the one or two stage process that is normally used. This competitive process is available for all local authorities to use, but very few do.

How did it work?

  • The first stage involved a bid based on the contract specification
  • The three top-scoring providers were then invited to present to a panel of evaluators and engage with them in a workshop
  • Finally, suppliers were invited to amend their bids and re-submit a best and final offer

So why was this useful? Well, from a supplier perspective, the challenge with a one or two stage process is that it has limited opportunities for engagement, and an exchange of ideas around how a contractor will be able to help shape the service.

Hounslow LBC was trying to revolutionise its services for young people and young parents, so using the three-stage dialogue process enabled them to maximise opportunities for discussion with prospective providers.

As an organisation, we know local authorities are under huge pressure to deliver and don’t always have time to think creatively. Pressed for time and money, we find opportunities to tender are often presented with large gaps in information and thinking, These could be improved with more effective dialogue and expertise/input from service providers. By commissioning quickly and often, we have found that problems are shifted around (or rather mounted up for a future date).

The supplier’s perspective

We know this three-stage process does take longer, but from our side of the fence we believe it helps commissioners to tease out and clarify exactly what they want. It also helps providers to clearly identify what they are taking on, and if they can deliver what is expected. We evaluate around 50 bids a year and this Hounslow bid is the only time we have ever seen this three-stage process used.

Everyone at Look Ahead found it refreshing. Those involved with our pitch, all of whom have worked in new business for many years, commented that even if we didn’t win, it was one of the most enjoyable and constructive commissioning experiences they had ever gone through.

Saving money and improving lives

So, the moral of our story is that with more effort at the start of a long contract, commissioners can end up with a better product. There are huge gains for commissioners, providers and, ultimately, the users of a service, particularly in children’s services.

What are the results so far?

Our contract with Hounslow only began in October 2017, but it is going well so far. No service redesign comes without teething problems; however, the conversations we had during the tendering process means we have better insight into how we can go about addressing them.

Our commissioners in Hounslow expect to make substantial savings on the cost of placements for compared to spot-purchased placements.In the long term, this new approach is expected to yield an annual net savings on the children’s services placements budget of £190,000.

Most importantly in many cases, more Hounslow care leavers are now able to stay in the borough, closer to their formal and informal support networks. Due to the economies of scale we’ve been able to achieve, the service incorporates an onsite therapist, who will provide art, dance, drama and talking therapy support, as well as a ‘family mediation worker’ to support young parents, where appropriate, promoting involvement from both parents and young people to draw on their family network.

As a service provider, we’re now advocates of the three-stage dialogue process. We’re glad Hounslow introduced us to it and involved us. Now we’re on board, we believe it will ultimately lead to more positive outcomes for young people in Hounslow.

Originally published in The MJ, 26 September 2018