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Children's Charities in CrisisEarly Intervention and the State$

Alison Body

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781447346432

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447346432.001.0001

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Commissioning children’s services: challenges, contestation and crisis

Commissioning children’s services: challenges, contestation and crisis

Chapter:
(p.109) 5 Commissioning children’s services: challenges, contestation and crisis
Source:
Children's Charities in Crisis
Author(s):

Alison Body

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781447346432.003.0006

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 5 concentrates on voices from the frontline and their lived experiences. Within this chapter we focus on the lived realities of commissioning. Commissioning, the central process for managing relationships between the voluntary sector and the state, is one of the most contentious issues for modern day children’s charities. Early intervention and preventative services for children, sit central to this debate – these statutory services at the heart of local government are often commissioned out to voluntary sector organisations for delivery, and form the very focus of this book. We argue that Commissioning in its current form is failing; it threatens the very survival of local voluntary sector organisations seeking to support children and young people, and, rightly so, is coming under increasing scrutiny. High profile cases such as the demise of the charity Kids Company, led by the charismatic Camila Batmanghelidjh, have brought the relationship between the State and sector to the fore of public and academic debate. In this chapter we begin to unpick some of that debate, examining what has happened over the past decade, charities experiences and how we may potentially move forwards.

Keywords:   Commissioning, Commissioners, Predatory Behaviours, Working Together, Children’s Services, Children’s Charities

There is what commissioning is supposed to be, the story I am supposed to tell, and what commissioning is in reality … They’re two very different things.

(Commissioner)

Introduction

A quick internet search of the word ‘commissioning’, and you are immediately inundated with countless ‘how-to’ toolkits and a plethora of guidance about how it is supposed to work in practice and what it is supposed to achieve. However, the lived realities of commissioning have received less academic attention. What are commissioners’ and voluntary sector providers’ everyday lived experiences of commissioning? Is it the seamless, logical process we are led to believe in the literature, or as some other commentators have suggested, is it a messier and more complex process?

Defined as ‘a cycle of assessing the needs of people in an area, designing and then securing an appropriate service’ (Cabinet Office, 2006), commissioning remains one of the most contentious issues for modern day children’s charities. Early intervention and preventative services for children sit central to this debate – these statutory services at the heart of local government are often commissioned out to voluntary sector organisations for delivery, and form the very focus of this book. Over the following three chapters we explore the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state in detail, drawing on both voices from the voluntary sector and commissioners themselves.

(p.110) The central argument to this section is that commissioning in its current form as a competitive market process is largely failing vulnerable children, it threatens the very survival of local voluntary sector organisations seeking to support children and young people, and, rightly so, is coming under increasing scrutiny. High profile cases such as the demise of the charity Kids Company, led by the charismatic Camila Batmanghelidjh, have brought the relationship between the state and sector to the fore of public and academic debate. In the simplest terms it raises the question of how should the state and children’s charities work together to ensure the best possible outcomes for children. In this chapter we begin to unpick some of that debate, examining what has happened over the past decade, charities experiences and how we may potentially move forwards. Drawing on the voices of children’s charity leaders, and commissioners themselves, we argue that commissioning in children’s services, in its current form, is a failed project, which lets down children and young people.

Policy context: competitive commissioning, a better approach to service delivery?

Commissioning has its roots in the discourse of new public management (NPM). NPM is an approach to running public sector services widely adopted in government, public service institutions and agencies, locally and nationally. Developed in the 1980s, NPM was a distinct move to make public services more business-like. Based on private sector models, emphasis is placed on efficiency and a customer service approach. Citizens are viewed as customers, and the professionals and public servants are viewed as the managers. Services are delivered within a framework of performance management targets.

As part of this discourse, the concept of commissioning emerged prominently in the UK in the early 1980s. The development of the dialogue around the purchaser–provider split, market testing and the mixed welfare economy was accompanied with the launch of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT). Introduced by the Conservative government in the 1980s, CCT is a requirement for public sector organisations to allow private (p.111) sector firms to bid for the delivery of services (such as catering, cleaning, security and transport) in competition with any internal provision by the organisation itself. The policy intention was to drive forwards a ‘market relationship’ within the public sector, based on an assumption that this would reduce costs and increase efficiencies. The reality is, that this led to tenders being won by organisations who could deliver cheaply, with quality of service provision coming in second to price in the competitive process. While CCT was relaxed by the Labour government on their election in 1997, the practice remained, and the transfer of public sector service delivery to voluntary sector and private providers has persisted.

The rise of commissioning of children’s services

In the context of children’s services, this sustained push towards commissioning was epitomised through focus on ‘joint, strategic and effective commissioning’ in the Every Child Matters White Paper and the Children’s Act 2004. Building on this, the 2006 Joint Planning and Commissioning Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services sought to deliver holistic, local services to meet local need. This emphasis on multi-agency working became commonplace under Labour with the ‘duty to cooperate’ enshrined in the Children Act 2004 section 10, which saw the formation of Children’s Trust Boards in all local authority areas. Subsequent Local Children’s Trusts Boards were established under these to represent smaller local communities. Each Children’s Trust Board had to produce and monitor a local Children and Young People’s Plan, which was used to advise commissioning priorities and decisions.

The emphasis on commissioning in children’s services was further strengthened by the launch of the Commissioning Support Programme in 2008. This programme aimed to work with local children’s services, specifically Children’s Trust Boards, to help them use their resources to improve outcomes for children and families, ‘efficiently, equitably and sustainably’. There was a simple, arguably unsubstantiated, assumption which underpinned this programme: better commissioning would result in better outcomes for children.

(p.112) 2008 onwards

In 2010, the election of the Conservative Coalition government saw significant changes for the public sector and children’s services. The statutory requirement for children’s trusts was removed, followed by a shift to a more localised approach to identifying local needs and funding. Coupled with severe fiscal pressures, commissioning increasingly became about cost saving. There was an intensified commitment to use commissioning as a mechanism to reform and reshape the landscape of public services (Rees, 2014).

Following the economic crisis in 2008/9 the Conservative Coalition government, abandoned the statutory requirement for Children’s Trusts and the Every Child Matters agenda. In its place it established an independent review of the policy field of child protection/prevention. As previously discussed, the Munro Report recommendations focused on multi-agency working. However, with the government openly focusing on the ‘reduction of public finance debt’, funding for early intervention services were cut by almost one quarter in their first year in office, with the funding for the voluntary sector in this field particularly affected (Gill et al, 2011). Simultaneously a new approach to preventative policy was adopted which abandoned ‘supporting families’, and emphasised ‘rescuing children from chaotic, neglectful and abusive homes’ (Parton and Williams, 2017). This resulted in a wave of commissioning of children’s services which focused on highly prescriptive, targeted, short-term interventions, which were in contrast to the longer term, relationship-based approaches adopted by most voluntary sector organisations within this field (Gill et al, 2011).

In the backdrop to all of this, children’s services in the UK are in the storm of a funding crisis, from social care to education, austerity bites from all angles. Since 2008 the economic crisis has resulted in a ‘doing more for less’ culture. The term ‘efficiency savings’, has become a euphemism for funding cuts, coupled with the term ‘innovation’ as a way of doing more for less. At the forefront of this, councils in the most disadvantaged areas carry the burden of the most significant funding cuts (Tinson et al, 2018).

(p.113) The challenges of commissioning

Unsurprisingly there are ongoing concerns about voluntary sector organisations who are increasingly reliant upon the state for a large proportion, if not the majority, of their income (for example see Milbourne and Murray, 2014). Critics argue that by forming a close relationship with the state and securing most funds from state sources, voluntary organisations face the risk of losing their independence (Independence Panel, 2015). Furthermore, the development of these relationships results in voluntary organisations being increasingly reliant upon the availability and continuity of government funding streams and therefore vulnerable to the inevitable changes in government policy and priorities. Within such relationships, these organisations are pushed to ‘improve’, to continuously demonstrate accountability and performance to both service users and the government, which can often be at odds with one another and poses a risk of losing sight of their original purpose. This brings to the fore concerns about marketisation of the voluntary sector and welfare reform, with a growing emphasis placed on commissioning for outcomes and efficiency savings (Milbourne and Murray, 2017).

Partly due to the previously discussed evolving ideological frameworks and the economic climate, children’s charities deliver increased amounts of public sector children and family support services. However, due to the economic downturn and austerity since 2008, the resources to support the voluntary sector delivering these services have not been as forthcoming as they were previously, both in terms of funding available and infrastructure support. Therefore, we are witnessing a significant period of change for the voluntary sector, dominated by shifting government policy, which stresses the need for localism and a mixed welfare economy, alongside a rapidly changing economic climate. Some commentators welcome this activity, suggesting that it will improve relations between state and the voluntary sector (Buckingham, 2011), while others remain concerned (Milbourne and Murray, 2014).

British literature (for example Milbourne and Murray, 2017; Rees and Mullins, 2016), suggests that a range of political, (p.114) ideological, policy and economic ingredients come together to generate both barriers to, and opportunities for, productive commissioning relationships. Most noticeably since 2008, public budget attrition and the intensification of organising ideas derived from NPM broadly stressing competition, choice and the importation of techniques from business, have all had to be taken as ‘givens’ in the new landscape (Hood, 1995). Furthermore, the research stresses that such pressures can result in voluntary sector organisations struggling to sustain their independent identities, potentially becoming supplicants to the ‘marketised state’ with whom they have become entangled; or perhaps seeking to opt out, distancing themselves from such processes, but as a result potentially foregoing chances to achieve valued social outcomes (Body and Kendall, 2020).

There have been multiple rationales presented for commissioning from a focus on increasing choice, devolving decision making to local areas, increasing public services efficiency while making them more accountable, transparent and opening services to a wider set of providers (HM Government, 2011). Further rationales have included increasing value for money, encouraging increased joint working and information sharing, as well as creating shared and pooled budgets (Rees et al, 2017). Nonetheless, many still have reservations about how best to commission services and who might provide them, with directors of children’s services, for example, expressing concerns about accountability and quality assurance. Commissioning is a contested concept, open to interpretation, which has been summarised by various actors in different ways (Bovaird et al, 2012; Dickinson, 2014; Rees et al, 2017). The widely accepted idea of the commissioning ‘cycle’ approach has been broadly adopted across government (Bovaird et al, 2012). Nevertheless, there is considerable variation in how this process has been adopted in practice, leading to confusion in both theory and practice (Macmillan, 2013a; Miller and Rees, 2014; Rees et al, 2017), alongside differential emphasis applied to the different parts of this cycle (Rees, 2014). While the term ‘commissioning’ has been adopted widely in discourse, establishing a single definition remains problematic. Indeed, Checkland et al (2012) comment (p.115) that ‘commissioners and providers struggled with the more fundamental ideas underpinning commissioning, suggesting that shared understanding is far from the norm’ (p 540).

The lived realities of commissioning

Central to this book are the lived experiences of 100 voices of individuals affected by commissioning arrangements. In this section we begin to draw together these voices to present some of the challenges that face those engaged in commissioning of children’s services.

Definition issues

While having a shared passion about ‘getting it right’ and a sense of moral duty towards children, there is a distinct lack of consistency in how commissioners themselves perceive commissioning and the role of the commissioner. This is significant in the commissioning process, as it results in substantial differentiations in how commissioning is carried out in different service fields and indeed in different localities. Most notably voluntary sector organisations who work across policy areas, such as children and adult services and/or geographical areas, experience very different approaches to commissioning.

What’s more, commissioners view their roles very differently. Definition of the role tends to fall under one of three orientations. For example, some commissioners frame their role in terms of procurement and efficiency saving:

We spend the council’s money, we justify what we spend it on, and prove that it was spent accurately and appropriately … And right now that driving priority is cost savings.

(Commissioner)

While this is the least likely primary framing of the role, accounting for just one fifth of how the commissioners defined it, all the commissioners acknowledged increasing financial pressures as a driver for commissioning. Under this understanding of commissioning, commissioners view commissioning primarily (p.116) as a cost saving process, with value for money being a prominent part of the competitive process. Their role in that process is one of preserving the most cost-effective services for children. Under this conceptualisation of commissioning, market engagement on consultative activities with wider stakeholders was very minimal.

Alternatively, and perhaps a more popular orientation of commissioning, just over half of the commissioners frame their role in terms of service provision:

My role, as I see it, is to, well basically ensure we provide the right services to stop children going into care. The right services in the right places.

(Commissioner)

In this definition of commissioning, the commissioner is more likely to see themselves as the expert in the field, tasked with choosing who should deliver services. Service design is more likely to take place within the commissioning organisation, with some, though limited, and largely formal consultative activities. However, contract management, including the monitoring and quality assurance processes is seen as paramount within the relationship.

The remaining commissioners see themselves as the coordinator of a process:

Commissioners coordinate the commissioning process, we do not necessarily need to be experts of the topic, that is why we consult, we bring together the right experts at the right points, and that should include the voluntary sector, but lots of others as well.

(Commissioner)

Under this less common understanding of commissioning the commissioner is more likely to view voluntary sector organisations as equal partners, with whom they work in close partnership with, in order to achieve service provision for children. These commissioners are likely to view their voluntary sector partners as experts in their field and often seek to involve them in the full commissioning cycle, formally and informally.

(p.117) Part of the disparity in commissioning can therefore be explained by the different approaches adopted by these individual commissioners. For example, from the very outset, when we consider how commissioners view the partnership between the public sector and the voluntary sector, views vary. Tensions emerge between those who see children’s charities as independent, equal partners, and those who view those same providers as an ‘extension of [the] public sector workforce’ (Commissioner). This results in fundamental variations about how relationships between the voluntary sector and state are managed, with some relationships informed by principles of co-production, and others managed through a bureaucratic, administrative process driven approach – an approach which currently dominates practice (this is further expanded in Chapters 6 and 7).

Dominance of process-driven commissioning approaches

Crouch (2011) argues convincingly that it is not commissioning per se which causes contestation between state and voluntary sector organisations, but rather how the process is carried out. There is significant tension between two types of commissioning approaches: ‘process driven’ commissioning and ‘relational driven’ commissioning.

Process driven commissioning is a commissioning process which broadly focuses primarily on the administrational, financial and monitoring aspects of the commissioning process, and is constructed on a restrictive, overly bureaucratic, transactional logic. This is in keeping with Martikke and Moxham’s (2010) suggestion that over-bureaucratisation of commissioning processes, lack of engagement with voluntary sector organisations and limited flexibility mean that potential benefits of commissioning such as voluntary sector providers engendering trust and beneficiary centred approaches are not fully achieved. For example:

I think we were afraid to talk to providers, we followed the letter of the law and the process. We were kept a very close eye on by procurement, they (p.118) monitored everything, it was all by the book … You don’t get sued that way.

(Commissioner)

In contrast, though less common, voluntary sector providers also identify ‘relational driven’ commissioning approaches which focus more on a child/young person-centred approach, defined by co-production and partnership. For example.

Before we got the contract they spoke to us and others about what the service was, then once we got it we agreed with them some sensible outcomes and outputs. It’s not always that way mind you.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

This dichotomy in approaches is not an either/or option, but rather a continuum of practice depending on the context of the commissioning process. Across the experiences we reflect on in this book, there is little evidence of any clear consistency in commissioning processes, nor was an ‘ideal’ model in commissioning ‘discovered’ during the research process for this book. Instead, there exists a wide variety in commissioning approaches, which vary across commissioners, commissioning organisations, and even within commissioning teams. Nevertheless, practices tending towards the process driven end of the spectrum dominate commissioning approaches. For example, as one provider comments on the commissioning of early intervention services:

They don’t know better than us in terms of what children need, and that would be my message, why don’t you use the expertise that we have and tap into that and work creatively to do something really amazing rather than assuming you know best and putting closed down targeted services that offer no scope for creativity.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

These process driven approaches were perceived to result in a polarisation of commissioner and provider relationships. Providers associate the more process focused commissioning with adversarial (p.119) relationships, restrictive contracts and punitive approaches to monitoring and evaluation, which often fail to really capture the true nature of what providers felt that they had to offer.

This is problematic. For example, where issues arise in the contracts or service delivery, children’s charities felt unable to discuss the best ways to manage and respond, restricting their ability to provide innovative, creative or alternative responses. The process driven commissioning relationships left children’s charities feeling ‘powerless’ (CEO, medium children’s charity), ‘helpless’ (CEO, small children’s charity) and ‘vulnerable’ (CEO, large children’s charity). As a result, where these charities felt this approach dominated, they actively sought ways to distance their relationship from the commissioning organisation and were reluctant to engage in any further commissioning processes:

It’s about money, tick boxes and jumping through ridiculous hoops that help no-one, so we’ve moved our position and now the substantial amount of our funding comes from other sources, this gives us some sort of leverage in being able to bring some more of that funding in and you are not completely reliant on the local authority so you can challenge. My board’s vision and our strategic plan is to be totally independent from the local authority. You know because the hassles we get at times, are not worth it and it can be very stressful.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

This perception of an unequal relationship is not unique, and shared by many of the children’s charities featured in this book:

There is an imbalance in what the local authority can potentially get away with and what we can. So for example in procurement they changed the timeframes all the time, they change the date that things have to be in all the time, but if we did that it would be ‘No’ you’ve got to keep to our timeframes. So there is not an equity in the way that kind of thing works.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

(p.120) The more process driven commissioning approaches dominate current commissioning practices. We followed over 80 commissioning processes, within which four out of five adopted a more process driven commissioning approach, which favoured contracting and procurement processes over collaborative commissioning. However, there is an alternative in the more relational commissioning processes, within which providers work in partnership with the commissioner. In such relationships, providers are enabled to negotiate around the service need, facilitating a higher level of cooperation and innovation to shared problem solving. However, within the experiences shared for this book, this more cooperative, collaborative relationship is often reliant upon a single relationship between two individuals. Nonetheless, such an approach sought to create space wherein commissioners and providers could really work together and exercise their professional skills, judgement and expertise. For example, a CEO of a medium children’s charity commented:

On one of our services we were able to go back to the commissioner to say this isn’t working and together we negotiated the service model and expected outcomes. The service was much better after that.

While another commented:

At the moment, we have XXX as our commissioner and she is amazing, she is one of the best commissioning managers we have ever had and she takes time to understand what is happening in the service and making some allowances for when there have been difficulties that haven’t been our responsibility … And she will take that and she will take our messages up to people further up who need to know that. So if you have got people who you have got the relationship with you feel like you are a little bit more on a par.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

Within this context of more relational commissioning, the role of the individual commissioner is important. Whereas more (p.121) process driven commissioning is associated with the financial procurement elements of commissioning, relational driven commissioning appeared more in line with the role of the commissioner as a coordinator of the process, set to bring together actors to find a combined solution. However, providers more frequently expressed concern about the more process driven, economic rationales dominating commissioning, for example:

I think price is still a massive issue, and I understand that, but I do think that sometimes it clouds everything, it’s just … well I could sit here for hours and write the most amazing bid in the whole world but if I am £1 over per hour from the other person it was pointless, and a lot of it just comes down to money and it is a guessing game cause it’s like this is the contract price but obviously we don’t want to pay that so come in below it, well how far below it? How much do we shave off, how much do we say well we are going to make a loss but the organisation is going to cover it. You know you can’t do that on every contract you going to tender for. Mediation service, we really wanted mediation, so we are making a loss on it, but it is something we desperately wanted to be delivering and the trustees were prepared to make that loss. If you don’t come in below you’re not even in the race so if we don’t have contracts going forwards when all the tenders come out we’re in a much weaker position so it is really important that the contracts we’ve got at the moment are running well, delivering the right outcomes, we can evidence everything, so when we come to tender later on in the year, we are in a strong position as other organisations.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Another commented:

I think it [the future] depends a little bit on how commissioning pans out and how much the local (p.122) authority are prepared to listen to the voluntary sector in what they see as the need, as opposed to what the local authority think they need. I think things are driven by different forces, the local authority is driven by Ofsted, and national government targets and things like that whereas voluntary sector are often more driven by what they see on the ground at that particular time and the two don’t always match up so you know.

(Business Manager, medium children’s charity)

Over-formalisation of relationships

A risk adverse culture dominates commissioning organisations. Described as a ‘culture of fear’ (Commissioner) due to job insecurities, austerity and political pressures, commissioners are often prevented from actively engaging providers both indirectly and directly, and instead resort to more formal and prescriptive modes of engagement:

I don’t actually believe commissioners have to be experts within their field but they have to be taking advice from experts in their field and that is the difference. Where it is working well they are either experts in their field or they are taking advice from experts in their field, where it is not working so well, the people commissioning assume they are experts and they are not and that is really problematic for us as a sector … Sadly it is becoming more commonplace, there is a growing gap between us and the commissioners.

(Business Manager, medium children’s charity)

Multiple and ongoing restructures within the public sector have left commissioners concerned about ‘rocking the boat’ or challenging internal processes, due to fear of reprisal from management. This is coupled with a fragmented approach to commissioning; varying across individuals, departments, organisations and localities which, as discussed earlier, creates (p.123) confusion within commissioning processes, as one commissioner comments:

Sometimes I feel we sort of make it up as we go along … And no-one wants to be the person who says ‘what are we actually doing?’. We had a consultant come in once and try to tell us how to commission and it was nothing like what we did before she came or is it now after!

(Commissioner)

As such, those in the role of commissioning reported frequently feeling ‘exposed’ (Commissioner) and ‘vulnerable’ (Commissioner).

More directly, children’s charities are experiencing a significant decline in infrastructure support, networking opportunities and representative involvement in decision-making groups, needs analysis and service design processes. For example, one small charity reported that up until 2011 they had sat on five local decision making and networking boards for children’s services, by 2018 they attended none of these as all of these groups had ceased to exist. Furthermore, a commissioner comments:

The mantra used to be ask the voluntary sector, make sure they are represented, and we’d wheel in the same two or three people – that doesn’t really happen now. We have to be very careful about how we engage with ‘the market’.

(Commissioner)

As suggested by this quote, justified in terms of avoiding unfair advantage in competitive processes, commissioners actively disassociate with the wider market, unless in formal ‘market engagement’ events. Indeed, children’s charities and commissioners equally recognise that there is little representation of the voluntary sector on decision making groups, and when there is, ‘it is not a true voice of the sector’ (CEO, medium children’s charity). Often one or two individuals from the larger, commissioned charities represent the wider sector, with little evidence of impact and with no ‘authority’ by the rest of the children’s charitable sector to do so.

(p.124) In particular, the majority of the children’s charities felt that there was a lack of consultation with the charitable sector during the needs analysis or service design phase. For example, one stated:

Decisions are made in isolation from us, we deliver the service day to day and know what works and what doesn’t but get no say. They recently restructured a service and we just sat back and thought how fundamentally flawed it was – and we know that because that’s the model we tried once and it failed. But you can’t tell them that, nope you can’t tell them that.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

While another suggested:

The voluntary sector has been cut out of the planning process almost entirely, but I think this is purposeful. It puts the sector in its place as a provider and the local authority as the customer. So organisations now make sure they are pleasing the customer and not their beneficiary. There is something deeply unsettling about that shift.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

Indeed, majority of the charities felt that they were actively ‘pushed out’ of having a voice, regardless of size:

Yes, there’s been, over the last two years, a total disengagement from the sector. I personally think as an organisation [the local authority] it is more detached as there is a push to not work in partnership but to work in contractual relationships … There has been an agenda driven by the local authority without any reference to the outside world over the last two years, and that has damaged relationships. So actually very often I will think to act politically, to voice my opinion, and then think there is no point as they are on their own pathway and they are not going to be diverted and they (p.125) are not going to be listening to any other voices.

(CEO, major children’s charity)

Several of the commissioning organisations involved in this book, however, had faced high profile, costly, legal challenges with regards to children’s services, which is likely to have created increased caution. Therefore, depending on the team involved, the relational aspects of their role could be considered highly problematic.

The formalisation of the commissioner–provider relationship also affected the contract management process. Contract management is the process by which commissioners use performance monitoring and evaluation to assess the success of the contract and delivery as per the service specification. During contract management processes, children’s charities identify several often absurd, irrelevant and inappropriate demands placed upon them; this could be being asked to provide data and information which is of no relevance to the contract they are delivering (for example, the smoking status of parents). Indeed, drawing on the voices from children’s charities, contract management remains one of the biggest areas of contention among those engaged in delivering statutory services under contract (such findings are consistent with others, for example Cairns (2009) and Martikke and Moxham (2010)). Closely related to the commissioning approaches discussed previously, and from the point of view of both providers and commissioners, a good commissioner–provider relationship is essential, although unfortunately, this appears to be rarely achieved.

For instance, monitoring requirements regularly change and, from the children’s charities perspectives did not demonstrate what the charities felt that they are really achieving with beneficiaries. For instance, one charity leader commented:

Between 2012 and 2014 the monitoring forms were changed five times without any prior warning to us it was just dropped into the inbox saying this quarter we will be monitoring this, I’d say you can’t do that, it was awful.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

(p.126) This was a common complaint from children’s charities. Monitoring requirements were regularly changed often resulting in charities having to heavily invest in administrative support to gather that data retrospectively. As well as being practically problematic many children’s charities felt such a focus on form filling and data collection alienated the very children and families whom they were aiming to support.

While quantitative key performance indicators are commonplace in the for-profit sector, many of the children’s charities argue that the translation of these into the non-profit sector loses sight of the added social value which charities seek to achieve, and instead creates barriers to achieving real outcomes:

Commissioned services are just focused on hitting targets not on telling the truth. There is no place in commissioned services for them to say well we didn’t make our targets so we will do x, y or z in place. No one says can we help you, what should we do – they don’t ask us – they tell us what to do and then add these targets to it. The attitude is you have that money, you hit that target otherwise we will take money off you. So the commissioned services actually lie to say they’ve met those targets, they’re forced to bend the figures to make it look good. I would put it down to the people who commission the work. They get all these applications in and they go for figures rather than quality, so the service has to then lie ‘cause they can’t deliver. It’s all for show and no real work is happening to change children’s lives, everyone just pats each other on the back for making the figures look good.

(Service Lead, small children’s charity)

As a result, we suggest that contract management and monitoring requirements often undermine service improvement within charities.

Inconsistent across commissioners and commissioning organisations, contract management processes appear highly dependent on the individual(s) or team of commissioners. (p.127) Children’s charities raised issues around ‘adversarial’ and ‘difficult’ contract management relationships, where it was felt that the needs of the beneficiaries were not a priority and the skills and knowledge of voluntary organisation were not considered in addressing any issues. As such, many organisations have lost confidence in the commissioner–provider relationship and often do not feel respected for their skills or knowledge base. For example, one business manager in a children’s charity talked about feeling bullied and attacked in monitoring meetings if they did not respond to questions as the commissioner required, comparing themselves to a ‘naughty child’ (Business Manager, medium children’s charity). Whereas another commented that they felt their ‘views were invisible and dismissed’ (Early Intervention Worker, medium children’s charity) without consideration. This was a trend across the children’s charities involved in this book. Overall children’s charities consistently feel under-engaged in the commissioning process, and largely excluded from needs assessment and design of services (Martikke and Moxham, 2010).

Size matters

Research consistently highlights that small-and medium-sized charities (those under £1 million turnover) have experienced higher income volatility than larger charities (Lloyds Bank Foundation, 2016; Mohan et al, 2016; Rees and Mullins, 2017). For instance, over half of the small and medium charities have experienced a rise or fall in income of over 20% and experienced disproportionate government funding cuts when compared to larger charities.

As detailed in the appendix to this book, we tracked the financial information of 231 children’s charities, working within the field of children’s early intervention services, all operating in a single geographical area. In 2008, each of the 231 organisations in the initial sample were in receipt of some form of support from statutory services, with 87% in the form of grant funding and infrastructure support, and 13% receiving infrastructure support and/or advice.

To gain an overview of the direction of financial travel of these charities the financial trajectory of these organisations was tracked. This data was based upon their real budget as reported in (p.128) their financial accounts for the respective years. Table 5.1 details the direction of financial travel, based on monetary income, between 2008/09 and 2013/14. Initial size classification was based on the organisational size according to their 2008 accounts.

It is interesting to note that though there is a fairly even spread of the children’s charities who have increased, decreased or ceased over the period of time, this is not evenly represented across organisational size with charities under £100,000 turnover per annum appearing particularly vulnerable. However, it is difficult to compare these figures to national trends given the specific nature, both in terms of period explored and specific focus on the area of children’s preventative services. Nonetheless, the data published in the prominent Civil Society Almanac by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO, 2015) supports these trends, identifying that small-and medium-sized organisations have been most affected by government spending cuts, with those under £1 million turnover experiencing a 34–38% decrease in funding. Furthermore, it suggests that these trends in income are reflected in staffing levels with large and major charities experiencing increases in staffing, whereas small and micro charities experienced significant drops in staffing levels over the same period.

Table 5.1: Changes in children’s charities income by size 2008–2014 (%)

Size*

Increased

Decreased

Ceased

Merged

Of overall sample

Micro

5.1

35.9

56.4

2.6

16.9

Small

18.7

26.7

49.3

5.3

32.5

Medium

46.5

33.8

16.9

2.8

30.7

Large

67.9

25.0

0.0

7.1

12.1

Major

55.6

38.9

5.6

0.0

7.8

Of overall sample

33.8

31.2

31.2

3.9

100.0

Note: (*) Micro < £10,000, Small £10,001– £100,000, Medium £100,001– £1 million, Large £1 million–£10 million, Major >£10 million

While we can suggest that commissioning and public sector cuts have had a significant impact, it is important to note that they certainly are not the only factors at play. For example, other notable factors include welfare reforms, austerity and changes in (p.129) philanthropic giving. Mohan et al (2016) suggest that in addition to size of charities, the strongest predictors of concern regarding financial changes, relates to being based in areas of disadvantage and the age of the charity, with charities in areas of deprivation and newer charities (those established after 1997) experiencing the greatest concerns regarding resources.

A lack of support for smaller charities to participate in commissioning processes has, however, led to a perception of commissioning processes being ‘geared for a national, corporate entity’ (CEO, small children’s charity), a viewpoint which is shared across the children’s charities:

The concept of commissioned services is not supporting or helping smaller charities. Totally the opposite it is watching them collapse! Larger companies and charities are dominating the commissioned bids which leaves the smaller charities no option but to fade away into the unknown – it’s carnage.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

Nevertheless, those children’s charities successful in securing tenders, and heavily reliant on contracted income expressed an acceptance of this approach and identified it as part of the ‘rules of the game’ (CEO, medium children’s charity). As such, they are potentially complicit in the process and frame this as legitimate action:

I don’t think it is an equitable process, but I think it probably is fair, and by that I mean I don’t think everybody has equal access, if I am honest, that is equal access to the contracts … for example, you have to show two years of bank accounts, and cover a certain area, so that rules out some of the organisations who have just started or are smaller. If you have just started that puts you in a very compromising position, but if you can’t evidence you are experienced, are you really able to deliver? It is laborious and if you haven’t got the money to pay someone to do it, or the time to do it, let alone having the skills you are (p.130) unlikely to be successful, and that is not about the quality of your work; that is about your ability to bid write. So I suppose that is what I mean, I think that is fair, we are all in that position, we all need to know whether we can bid write or not. Is it equitable? Small organisations are disadvantaged by the current rigour of the process, but that also means maybe they are not placed to deliver if they are not stable, or large enough to be resilient to market forces around them.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

Notably, this view of inequitable access was consistent among the large and major charities:

I think the process was ethically completely wrong and the commissioners completely missed the point in terms of the community budgets that they set and the fact the larger players who were more successful at tendering were able to apply for that and cleaned it up, and just added that to the portfolio of what they doing already and actually contradicted the ethos behind what that budget was supposed to be doing and that was completely wrong, but equally we are part of that.

(CEO, major children’s charity)

Nonetheless, though laudable that these larger and more advantageously positioned children’s charities note these inequalities, it is also important to note that none of the charities who were successful in the commissioning processes, who engaged in the research for this book, sought to challenge this inequality in access, and arguably by participating within these processes simply reinforce and consent to this system.

Micro-, small-and some medium-sized children’s charities lack the capacity and geographical breadth to tender for the majority of the contracts – this is a prominent issue in children’s charities of up to £500,000 turnover per annum. Children’s charities which delivered on a district or local level were the most significantly disadvantaged as many contracts are either advertised as countywide or divided into parcels which are out of reach (p.131) of local organisations. This meant that if smaller organisations wished to compete, they either tried to expand quickly and justify coverage across a wider area or join a consortium or partnership. This left small-and some medium-sized charities in a dilemma of ‘survival versus mission’ (CEO, small children’s charity). For example, as one medium charity commented:

I feel that us smaller charities have been let down by many other services [charities] and from the likes of XXX [name of a larger charity]. When all those people were saying well this is how it should be, we need to have local provision by local people, and now they are on the other side, they are getting the money, the tune has changed and it seems to me they are there just to pick up a pay-cheque – they’ve sold out … And I can’t sign up to that, I can’t put us into bed with them when they’ve sold out.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Bureaucratic procurement processes

Developing tenders is a time-consuming task, overly cumbersome, bureaucratic and administrative. Small-and medium-sized organisations particularly feel the disadvantage (Cairns et al, 2005). Larger charities are better equipped to tackle these bureaucratic processes, often with an individual or team of dedicated fundraisers, business managers or employed consultants to do the work. In contrast, CEOs of smaller children’s charities report spending up to 60 hours per tender, completing the paper work. In terms of time, this draws them away from their day-to-day work within their charity, where they are often involved in frontline delivery, as well as organisational management. The overly burdensome processes did not only affect the small charities, however, as this CEO of a medium-sized charity reports:

I logged my hours, just to get us onto the commissioning portal and when it was all downloaded it was a 48 hour piece of work, if (p.132) I had been a smaller charity, I’d have had to put out a sign, closed for a week and a half.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

These bureaucratic processes do not just have implications on time and resources for smaller organisations, but also on individuals’ emotions, motivations and, at times, their personal wellbeing. Simply put, people working in and leading children’s charities are angry and increasingly disenfranchised by these processes. For example, a CEO of a locally based project supporting local vulnerable families since 1990 expressed the following about the move from grants to commissioning:

And then there was this really quick transition from local grants and it was reined into the central local authority, and then they said well we won’t do that anymore we will just see who we want to commission and the way they went about it and the business portal you went through, and register and go through a formal commissioning process for the framework, and I got really fired up – I tried on one major one and I thought what the heck? It was geared for a large, corporate, professional organisations and there was no way a small little project like mine could even access what was being asked for on the portal, so we couldn’t even get to the end of that as we could not meet the criteria. If you have a national charity who have a commissioning team, they are geared up for that, and that is what really wound me up, the way we were treated as a project, we had served them well for years and after all that time we were just being thrown out. There were no other funding routes or access routes offered – and I think the biggest and most upsetting thing was, we had had this ongoing good working relationship with local managers, who had some autonomy and knew us – and then it went from that to a group of commissioners centrally, who didn’t know the area, who didn’t know the local need, who didn’t know us – they just didn’t know (p.133) us, they didn’t know the local skills, the knowledge we had, the relationships we had locally – they didn’t know about our working relationships with the local people, they weren’t interested and it was all done through that damn portal … A lot of projects just went under – a lot have gone from around here.

(CEO, small children’s charity)

These charities consistently share concern about commissioning simply securing the ‘best bid writers and lowest cost, rather than the right organisation to deliver the service’ (CEO, medium children’s charity). The fear of the longer-term impact, potential loss of specialisms and established experience, is explored later in this book, but here the feelings of powerless and inaccessibility are clear. This was not a view that was limited to charities, but one shared as a common theme by commissioners as well:

Commissioning is set up to tick boxes on price favouring low cost, and it discriminates against small local charities because it wants countywide provision and accepts unproven promises over experience and proven worth from previous service evaluations.

(Commissioner)

Another bone of contention for charities consists of the ability, or lack thereof, to negotiate and challenge contracts. Children’s charities who engaged in the contracting processes, identified circumstances within which they felt they should challenge the commissioning organisation, or seek to renegotiate contract expectations, but felt unable to do so. This particularly affected the small and medium children’s charities who lacked additional resources to form legal challenges. Therefore, challenging contract management rarely appeared to be a reality, with charities identifying fear of punitive repercussions or damaging reputation as the primary reason. For example, one medium children’s charity felt that they had been asked to accommodate additional beneficiaries outside of the original contract with no increase in funding. They felt that this was ‘in breach of (p.134) contract … but it was politically unwise to challenge’ (CEO, medium children’s charity), as they were in process of tendering for another contract and felt that a challenge would negatively affect their chances of securing that tender. Further examination of the relationship between commissioners and charities also revealed a sense of powerlessness, especially from smaller-and medium-sized organisations engaged in contract delivery. One charity reflects on their experience of feeling that a contractual change partway through the contract was illegal and ultimately damaging for beneficiaries:

But the ultimate feeling was even if we are right, it wasn’t fair, who wants to take the local authority to court. We certainly don’t have those resources to challenge them in court, we’ve never had to do that and never would want to, but you are left with an absolute sense of powerlessness because ultimately it is our staff and young people who bare the brunt of that change.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Challenges in working together

Children’s charities identify that collaborative working between charities has reduced over the past decade. This is not a sweeping statement which can apply to all charities and charity types (see Chapter 6), however if we focus upon those contracted to work in partnership with the state we begin to unpick two barriers which can prevent partnership working between charities; competition and perceived predatory behaviours.

Competition

Children’s charities, working within the field of early intervention services, are more likely to see other children’s charities as competitors rather than collaborators with whom to cooperate. Centred on the concept of competition, understood as ‘when different groups vie for advantage’ (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012: 14), children’s charities recognise an ongoing and increasing competition for resources, resulting in a reduction in (p.135) cooperative action. In these terms, cooperation is understood as a ‘combination of shared interests and common collective identity’ (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012: 15). For example, as one CEO commentated as a reflection on the impact of commissioning:

I feel there is a disconnect among voluntary organisations, there is a sense of territorialism which has been growing there for years and I think it gets more difficult the harder resources are to come by, certainly from a funding point of view. You would think a consortium going would be the way forwards but a lot aren’t even up for that, they are just drawing back, going well we are doing ok thanks, or no this is our area don’t get involved. It is very, this is our patch and that is prevalent, well even more so now.

(CEO, small children’s charity)

While another, when asked if commissioning had increased partnership working, stated:

No, it [partnership working] has decreased, absolutely. It is a negative thing, but there is a worry about competition.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Such concerns raised several potential tensions among the children’s charities. The majority of frontline workers report a recognition of an ongoing and rising turbulence in how children’s charities relate to one another, a negative impact they relate to commissioning. This results in a polarisation of some charities and the creation of heightened tension alongside decreasing cooperative communication. For example:

I thought we’d come together when a tender came out, as we all wanted the same thing from it. But actually, it wasn’t the case, everyone was very closed really, to be honest. I’ve noticed a few years ago people were working in their silos and they didn’t dare talk to each other as they were worried somebody might pinch some work off them … I’ve (p.136) noticed more so in the last 18 months people have gone back to their ‘I need to keep this contract and I’m not going to talk to anybody cause I’ve got to make sure nobody takes what’s ours’ stance. So, the process doesn’t necessarily allow opportunities for organisations to really talk openly about what they are doing and have that openness.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Nonetheless, examples of formal partnership working, such as sub-contracting, mergers and consortium working, are evident in commissioning processes. Indeed, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Navigating change report (Crees et al, 2016) identifies a rise in these formal relationships over recent years. However, our discussions with charities also reveals a difference between charities who form formal partnerships because of a tender opportunity with little previous working relationships, and those who have enjoyed a historic working relationship. For example:

We came together to form a consortium to bid for the local authority contracts. And there were two reasons we did that, one we all more or less think the same things, and that is why it has worked well us coming together, and we’ve known each other for a long, long time, it wasn’t just done because this is what we need to be doing, it was done because actually we want to do this. We all think the same and certainly what was happening within the refuge movement locally and nationally, was larger organisations were coming in and taking over the running and yes they can offer it as a cheaper service, and yes the frontline worker may be enthusiastic and very for it, but it didn’t come out of the women’s movement, and that’s where we were coming from so it was a slightly different ethos.

(CEO, small children’s charity)

In this and other similar examples, children’s charities with a shared historic relationship and similar ethos often shared skills (p.137) and led on themes across the partnership. For example, another partnership of three providers formed teams across a geographic area to deal with different elements of a commissioned contract. None of these charities had capacity to deliver the tender individually, but together they were more able. As a result, they shared resources, line management and support services for staff outside of their individual charities. These forms of partnership are potentially more robust in responding to any problems that may arise, with charities having a stronger commitment to retaining relationships above competition.

In contrast, charities with no historic relationship coming together to secure commissioned contracts were more likely to each deliver segments of a service in isolation, and at times with little awareness of what each other was doing. For example, a consortium of charities secured a tender to deliver an emotional wellbeing service across a single local authority area. Each charity was tasked to deliver in their own geographic area, often using different models of delivery, with one ‘lead’ charity taking overall responsibility for the contract and financial management. The charities involved in this project felt it was ‘unequal’, ‘unfair’ and that the lead charity was ‘in it for profit, contributing little while everyone did the work.’ As such another member of this consortium commented ‘we should not have got into this with them, our values and priorities are just too different’ (CEO, medium children’s charity). Each of the charities involved in this consortium reported that they would be unlikely to seek a partnership with the consortium beyond the life-time of the project.

Notably, commissioners assume that larger organisations will form partnerships with small local organisations. However, this is not often a reality. Based on the voices who have contributed to this book, charities are most likely to form partnerships with those who resemble themselves in size, scope and mission. For example, of the 40 charities we spoke to, 16 were currently involved in some form of a formal, contractual partnership with another charity (30 had been involved in at least one formal partnership within the past three years), all of these were medium to major charities, only three of these partnerships involved a small charity.

(p.138) Children’s charities largely see this increase in competition as a deliberate move by commissioning organisations to focus their relationships on particular parts of the market, suggesting that ‘they only want to have to deal with a couple of major players and leave the rest of the sector to fight it out’ (CEO, medium children’s charity).

Predatory behaviours

The increasing marketisation of the voluntary sector and charities, coupled with the promotion of large professional third sector organisations under Labour (1997–2010), and up-scaled contracts through the Conservative Coalition (2010–2015) government into the current Conservative government (2015–), has seen an upsurge in the perception of predatory behaviours among children’s charities.

We felt very resentful to people coming in and taking work which we have been doing for years.

(CEO, small children’s charity)

Commissioning continuously favours large organisations over smaller (Milligan and Fyfe, 2005; Munoz, 2009). Consistent across the leaders of children’s charities and commissioners interviewed, the ‘predatory’ behaviours of larger, and often perceived ‘less ethical’ (CEO, Small Children’s Charities) charities are on the rise.

Poor commissioning practices were perceived to result in small and medium organisations being marginalised in local communities, driving out highly skilled local organisations, with established relationships and connections, and replacing them with large scale services, parachuted into a local area. This resulted in perceptions of unfair and unjust treatment of smaller charities:

I am upset about commissioned services solely on the basis that I’ve certainly seen local organisations disappear and I’ve seen new ones form that I just will not accept are doing the job the old one was (p.139) doing ‘cause I can clearly see that the young people are not accessing those services.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

In these terms predatory behaviours are understood as a broader act within which some children’s charities used mechanisms perceived as less legitimate by other actors within the field to gain advantage. For example, a CEO of a medium-sized charity viewed another similar-sized charity as ‘going after every contract they can, regardless of whether they can deliver on it – they are just good bid writers and have the members’ [local authority elected members] ear’ (CEO, medium children’s charity). Another defined ‘predators’ as ‘those organisations who are just interested in chasing the money, so under-price a smaller group to win the contract even though they know others would be better at delivering that service’ (CEO, small children’s charity).

However, the legitimacy of these identified predatory behaviours is perceived differently by different actors. Commissioners appeared to recognise this perception of predatory behaviour as a ‘necessary evil’ (Commissioner) of the commissioning and tendering process, and some commissioners suggested that it resulted in the best provider being commissioned. Nonetheless, small charities which struggled to engage with the commissioning processes felt that it was against the ethos of ‘charity’, with several suggesting that it was both harmful to beneficiaries and betrayed voluntary sector values. For example, one charity leader commented:

Commissioning brings out the worst in people, once it felt we were all in this together for the sake of children and communities. Now it feels like everyone out for themselves … It’s not really what we’re supposed to be about.

(CEO, small children’s charity)

The perception of predatory behaviours reduces partnership working, as smaller charities view larger counterparts as a threat to their survival. For example, a CEO of a small children’s charity felt concerned when it came to competing with others for funding:

(p.140) But funding is tricky, at the moment we are doing different services than these big players, but it is always keeping my eye on them, they are a threat. But there are other organisations that are a threat to me, [charity a] are a threat to me, because they are venturing into different things and they don’t seem to look to whether it is already happening before they get funding … so that worries me a bit, that they are a bit of a loose cannon, there are quite few. [Charity b] are also a threat. They keep stepping outside of their remit into mine, it is very much ‘Get out of my field’, yeah because I literally could lose funding and bits of my organisation will close and I can’t get funding ‘cause you over there have got it [gestures to others in distance] and do you know how to serve this local community, no you don’t.

(CEO, medium children’s charity)

Nonetheless this activity is legitimised by the larger children’s charities working within the field of early intervention services, who saw the threat of predatory behaviour as problematic but also legitimate and acceptable:

Where we were in a position to apply, we did, and were successful and we won’t apologise for that but we will feel sorry the rest of the sector who really deserve to have a better, a more advantageous approach to that budget, because it was reduced and it was … well if I take a step back from my role and the organisation and just purely give it an ethics view those smaller organisations have a greater impact for a smaller budget, that is where that money should have gone.

(CEO, major children’s charity)

Yet, what is also notable, is that all children’s charities, regardless of their size, consistently highlighted a fear of larger organisations parachuting in and ‘taking’ their work, and furthermore the very real threat (and reality) of private organisations coming in to (p.141) deliver welfare-based services. For example, one major children’s charity leader commented:

As the welfare state diminishes, there is space to compete for contracts currently, what will change that game completely is if we have external players come into our market place and that is always there as a threat. It hasn’t yet been realised, it is the speck on the horizon that we’ve all sort of known is there but the minute Serco, Tribal, Babocks, Capita go ‘that contract is worth our while’ and move in and will take it on a loss leader basis to get a foothold in the local authority, and we are then very conscious that is some of the challenges we face in other areas as well, in that the people in these national or private groups, we understand that they will take it on as a loss leader.

(CEO, major children’s charity)

There is however a narrative of legitimisation of this parachuting-in behaviour among the large and major children’s charities, legitimised through a diversifying to survive-type discourse:

I am sure they (small charities) could find us predatory, ‘cause we can find it predatory for example if some organisation suddenly turned up and started delivering all of our services and we would feel that is was inappropriate ‘cause their local knowledge wasn’t as good as ours and all those things those very small organisations can feel. I mean we are a funny size organisation, we are somewhere between those very grassroots organisations and those bigger regional based organisations, we are mid ground, and yes I can see how some other organisations can find that threatening. But I would ask would they find that threatening if it was another small organisation, very probably, if another small organisation moves into your local area and starts delivering services you have traditionally been delivering it is threatening, (p.142) but I don’t think that is necessarily about size.

(CEO, large children’s charity)

Conclusion

Commissioning remains a dominating force in the definition of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector (Rees, 2014). Nevertheless, the current, multiple and inconsistent models of commissioning evident even within the single field of activity of children’s preventative services are not yet realising the perceived benefits of commissioning outlined in the multiple policy-based documents which have been adopted by commissioning bodies.

This chapter demonstrates some significant risks and pressures brought on by commissioning that can lead to negative consequences for some (but not all) children’s charities. Too often commissioning is conflated with procurement, focusing on price over quality of service. Children’s charities and commissioners each suggest that a more relationally driven model of commissioning, based on partnership brings benefits above those of more process-focused approaches, as it creates a permissive space which allows actors to draw on a range of professional skills, expertise and judgements to co-construct services. However, political pressures, risk adversity and a lack of cooperation among actors means that these relational processes are less frequently realised.

Furthermore, restrictive tendering and contract management processes threaten the perceived potential benefits of commissioning by preventing innovative, creative and beneficiary centred responses. As a result, we suggest that predefined service specifications, which do not take into account specialist knowledge from children’s charities delivering in these areas, are leading to a potential loss of specialist skills and cooperation among actors (Moriarty and Manthrope, 2014) in supporting vulnerable children.

Moreover, for children’s charities there is a real threat of mission drift (Cunningham, 2008), heightened concern about competitiveness and increased concern about voluntary sector independence, autonomy and critical voice. Therefore, in this book we call for a re-definition of the relationship between (p.143) commissioning organisations, as state actors, and the voluntary sector. The current dominating hierarchical nature of this relationship potentially threatens to undermine the perceived benefits of commissioning and further increase instability within fields of activity.

Children’s charities and commissioners clearly understand that finances are depleting, however rather than consistently working cooperatively together with one another to explore alternative ways to meet the needs of beneficiaries, the contestation within some of the relationships threatens to stifle innovative responses on all fronts. The current, varying practices of tendering processes and contract management further contradict this, with risks of mission drift, skill loss, funding inconsistencies and instabilities placed upon the voluntary sector. Equally, there is a recognition that the voluntary sector is not a passive recipient within this relationship. In order to redefine this relationship, charities have to alter their positioning and help redress issues around representation, managing relationships and addressing need. Increasing investment and support of infrastructure services for the voluntary sector could help address this. However, any redefinition of the relationship between state and voluntary sector actors relies on a focus on open, transparent communication and cooperation in solving local issues, openly involving all interested parties to contribute to the identification of needs and solutions.

Commissioning has not achieved a fully diverse model of services being delivered outside of the public sector and increasing choice as some advocates of commissioning would like (for example, Blatchford and Gash, 2012; Sturgess et al, 2011). Nor has it led to full marketisation and privatisation of services and complete loss of independence of voluntary sector organisations as critics suggest (for example, Benson, 2015; Davies, 2008). Instead commissioning appears to have left us with a somewhat messier, complex and contested space which is highly relational, political and often ambiguous. In terms of early intervention and preventative children’s services this has led to a confused and often defensive voluntary sector with individual children’s charities struggling to define or identify their position or role within this field of activity, as we explore in the next chapter. (p.144)