Opinion Feature: Commissioning after coronavirus

We are delighted to publish here a new opinion feature by Elizabeth Chamberlain, Head of Policy & Public Services at the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), which champions the voluntary sector in the UK by connecting, representing and supporting its membership of over 14,000 member organisations.

Part of the Serco Institute’s mission is to welcome and share diverse views on important topics, from thinkers in various sectors and countries, in addition to from our own team. This article reflects the thoughts of its author alone, at the time of writing.


Commissioning after coronavirus: what should the ‘new normal’ look like for the voluntary sector?

During the coronavirus crisis, we have seen public bodies, and councils in particular, offering an unprecedented level of flexibility and support to voluntary organisations that deliver contracts. This flexibility has allowed them to respond to the new and emerging needs of communities and citizens.

But the picture before coronavirus hit showed a system with many challenges, which at times made it difficult for the voluntary sector to bring some of strongest qualities to public service delivery.

As we emerge from the crisis and embark upon the road to recovery, it is important to not revert back to how things were before and instead use this as an opportunity to improve commissioning. We should be aiming to create a system whereby charities and voluntary organisations can make proper use of their deep connections in communities, and provide support that is personalised, empowering and effective.

What needs to change

The crisis has highlighted pre-existing flaws in the system.


The first one is, unsurprisingly, funding.

Funding from local and central government and related agencies is an ongoing concern. Councils have lost a third of their revenue over the past 10 years and several have recently announced they are close to effective bankruptcy, while others are selling assets. Across all authorities, enough funding must be provided to make sure that public services can be delivered effectively, particularly where demand is shifting or increasing as a result of the crisis.

Price-based competition

Before the outbreak we saw organisations increasingly refusing or relinquishing contracts because the prices had been pushed too low. This is a result of heavier weighting being given to price during the procurement process – over quality, outcomes and social value. Some organisations use additional voluntary income to make sure they can deliver safe and good-quality services. Reductions in this income as a result of coronavirus will make it harder for organisations to deliver these contracts and to provide positive outcomes for the communities they work with.

Overly restrictive arrangements

In recent years the effectiveness of, and overreliance on, payment by results to drive performance has come under increasing scrutiny. Since the outbreak some organisations have benefited from greater flexibility on key performance indicators and payment arrangements, as outlined by the procurement guidance by the Cabinet Office. But there is concern that they will be expected to deliver the same outcomes within previous timescales when the commissioner decides it is time to return to previous arrangements. This fails to recognise that many will be dealing with increased demand and reduced capacity, while operating in a dramatically changed environment.

Transactional relationships

Many organisations have been used to a continuous cycle of re-tendering and a transactional way of working with commissioning authorities – one that sees procurement as the end goal rather than the means to achieve outcomes. In the current crisis we know of organisations that have had no or limited communication with authorities, or are awaiting decisions on contracting arrangements, leaving them in challenging circumstances and risking the loss of important information on needs and potential responses that organisations can offer.

How we can change

This crisis has highlighted more than ever the need for support services to work alongside communities, adapting to the needs and wishes of the individual, focusing on their strengths and ensuring their rights and freedoms. Some of this is about building the confidence and capacity of commissioners, but we also need to see the following:

  • Guidance from the Cabinet Office to enable ongoing flexibility through recovery and beyond.
  • Strong leadership in authorities to give commissioners and contract managers the support they need to change.
  • A review of commissioning and procurement, recognising what is possible within our current system.
  • Enough local government funding.
  • For all public bodies to take account of social value, understanding the inherent social value in the way charities and voluntary organisations work and deliver.
  • Commissioners considering the flexibility and other benefits of using grants more widely, rather than contracts.

What should the ‘new normal’ look like?

The coronavirus crisis has had a huge impact on all types of public services, but many charities and voluntary organisations have been particularly affected. The range and scale of the challenges has been unprecedented. Many organisations delivering public services have had to temporarily close and suspend their activities. Some have radically changed their delivery, and others still are trying to meet fluctuating and urgent demand. Yet we have also seen organisations overcoming many of these challenges to continue to meet individuals’ and communities’ needs under significant pressures.

Now we should build on the good practice that has emerged and the lessons we have learnt to permanently shift to a ‘new normal’ that is a ‘better normal’.

A ‘new normal’ where inequalities are redressed

Public services do not always meet the needs of those they are designed to serve. Nor do they always operate in efficient or effective ways. There are unacceptable inequalities – between different geographical areas, communities and individuals – in the types of public services that are available and accessible. Some of these inequalities have unfortunately been caused or made worse by the design and the delivery of those services which are intended to support us. Many of these inequalities existed long before this crisis, but they have been exacerbated by it and it is no longer acceptable to let them be. Addressing inequality should run through all service design and planning, and government should work in partnership with organisations of marginalised communities to tackle inequality.

A ’new normal’ that places communities or people who use services at its heart

Demand for public services and support is likely to increase as a result of coronavirus, particularly for marginalised groups and communities. This crisis has demonstrated the importance of services that are person-centred, agile and connected to the community.

For public services to be effective in the ‘new normal’, they must be designed, funded and targeted appropriately. People who use services must be placed at the heart of this process, with coproduction and person-centred support at the core.

Charities and voluntary organisations have always been crucial partners in developing and delivering public services. We can draw on what we have learned about what works well and what needs to change, to build better and more equitable public service in the future.

A ‘new normal’ built on partnerships and collaborative relationships

Flexible, partnership working and an end to price-based competition should be part of the ‘new normal’.

Over the past 10 years we have seen a push towards the use of contracts over grants, larger aggregated contracts, as well as over reliance on payment-by-results (PbR) arrangements. This has created significant barriers for voluntary organisations, especially small and medium sized organisations. Yet we have seen that organisations with existing collaborative arrangements with authorities have been better able to respond to the crisis quickly, because they had the opportunity to work in a flexible and agile way.

Greater collaboration between the public sector and the voluntary sector has been cited by many as one of the most noticeable and positive shifts during the crisis, and one that should be maintained in the future.

What next?

Charities and voluntary organisations have been ideally placed to respond to the pandemic and will continue to be essential to meet rising demand for public service delivery. Bringing both agility and connection to communities, the voluntary sector is best placed to design and develop new ideas for services in partnership with those who use them and with government.

But it cannot play this role if government and public bodies don’t learn from this crisis and adapt to this very different world. What some may have seen as short-term solutions have the potential to build a better system that is here to stay. Now is the opportunity to make a better ‘new normal’.


Elizabeth Chamberlain joined NCVO in 2008 and now leads the organisation’s work on policy and public services. Over the years Elizabeth has acted as secretariat for a number of specialist policy projects, including the review of fundraising regulation, and NCVO’s independent review of the Charities Act. Before joining NCVO, Elizabeth lived in Brussels where she worked for the vice president of the European Commission in the cabinet for Justice, Liberty and Security.


If you would like the Serco Institute to consider publishing your work, then please do get in touch with our Senior Researcher, Geordie Morrison.

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