To what extent is an evidence-based approach to commissioning happening at the coal-face – is the theory reflected in practice? And what can commissioners – and service providers – do to ensure that evidence better informs decision-making?
These are the questions explored in Realising Ambition’s seventh Programme Insight, Commissioning possible, which looks at the experience of the Realising Ambition delivery portfolio through an evidence-based commissioning lens.
Realising Ambition is a Big Lottery programme funding and supporting the replication of 25 services designed to prevent children and young people from entering the criminal justice system. Rather than write a long evaluation report at the end of it – which few people would probably read – at Realising Ambition we are producing a number of short briefings whilst the programme is live, each of which addresses a different (albeit interesting!) aspect of the our learning.
So, why our interest in evidence-based commissioning? Just prior to us establishing Realising Ambition in 2012, the National Audit Office outlined eight principles of good commissioning, intended to create efficiency gains and better outcomes through ‘smarter, more effective and innovative commissioning, and optimal involvement of third sector organisations in public service design, improvement, delivery and accountability’.
Well, the 25 services included in the Realising Ambition portfolio are, we believe, representative of the diverse nature of those working in the UK children and young people’s sector. They include large nationals as well as small locally-based charities. The services similarly are very different, split between school, family and community-based approaches, some of which were universal services, others targeted. Just under half of the services supported had an international evidence base and the rest were home-grown in the UK. And each delivery organisation received support from Realising Ambition’s managing Consortium aiming to make them stronger, more resilient social businesses and to further improve the evidence base for their services.
Theoretically then, an increasing focus on evidence-based commissioning would place these organisations and their services in a strong position to be sustained and further replicated post-funding.
So, what did we find?
Well, it’s clear to us that there is still a lot of work to do to engage commissioners in a discussion about evidence and how it might help improve outcomes for children and young people. Whilst commissioners we spoke with signed up emotionally and intellectually to the principles of good commissioning, our experience in Realising Ambition is that still many decisions are based on price. And whilst there has been movement towards commissioners assessing the evidence-base of services and to some extent organisational strength, it’s still patchy once you drill down to the very local level.
Feedback from Realising Ambition’s delivery portfolio says that it is relationships between commissioners and the (potential) service provider still that remains the critical factor. But of course relationships take time and capacity to develop – especially in areas where an organisation doesn’t already provide services. And it is harder for smaller organisations that want to spread or scale evidence-based services.
So the challenge for us all is that we have to find a way of bringing together the relationships side of the commissioning process with a stronger focus on evidence. After all, both are about establishing confidence.
Our Programme Insight explores these lessons and presents the Realising Ambition Confidence Framework. This resource helps assess services and their delivery organisations’ ability to achieve outcomes while identifying areas for development, adaptation and refinement. It can assist commissioners to make more informed decisions about which services and which organisations can achieve better outcomes for children and young people.
Shaun Whelan is Catch22’s Programme Manager for Realising Ambition. This five year, UK-wide Lottery funded programme received £25 million to replicate and scale outstanding and evidence-based services that prevent youth offending. Realising Ambition has been managed by Catch22 supported by a consortium of Dartington Social Research Unit, Substance and the Young Foundation. The Realising Ambition Programme Insight 7 was first published on the Catch 22 website.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.