The Growing Influence of Social Commissioning

Julian Blake discusses the growing importance of Social Commissioning

By ESELA Posted 22/01/2018

At ESELA’s Brussels Conference, on 28 April 2017, Anna Kuusniemi-Lane of Castren Snellman in Finland and I, proposed an ESELA Social Commissioning Group for members with a special interest in social commissioning.

This subject is of growing significance and showing real signs of becoming mainstream, as public authorities across Europe seek to maintain public services, at reduced cost and to develop outcomes-based contracting models, including social impact bonds.

Over the past decade the European Union Public Procurement and State Aid rules have often been wrongly seen as inherently restrictive of progressive commissioning. The essential purpose of securing best value public services has been obscured by the legal assurance process against anti-competitive support to business suppliers, including social enterprises. In the UK I am co-author, with Frank Villeneuve-Smith, from our leading transport social enterprise, HCT Group, of a modest publication which has succeeded in promoting this message to central and local government and the supplier sector. I am also involved in the E3M and Bold Commissioner project, led by European Social Business, which brings together groups of pioneering social enterprise leaders and enlightened commissioners in collaborative discussion and debate.

These initiatives have highlighted how the European Commission’s Social Business Initiative championed the social economy, emphasised the true purposive, permissive and facilitating nature of the Procurement and State Aid rules and declared the pursuit of common societal goals to be an important further use and purpose of procurement.

An ESELA Social Commissioning Group can play an influential part in changing the general focus from legal compliance, to social value and social impact implementation. For example, in January 2018, on behalf of ESELA, I presented to a European Investment Bank Social Outcomes Contracting Workshop on “technical constraints in procurement”. I argued that constraints are substantively behavioural and cultural, not “technical” and that the real issue is that market theory cannot, or should not, be applied to public services, without a balancing control.

We can work to restore paramount purpose to public service commissioning and challenge the distorting effects of rigidity, risk aversion and lack of proportionality in procurement process.

We can promote the role of social enterprises, as public service suppliers combining public sector purpose and private sector business capability and bringing their own set of enhanced communitarian values. We can articulate the development and growth of social enterprise, supported by social finance, social investment models and the increasing sophistication of methodologies foe social value analysis and social impact measurement.

We can support the means by which best practice commissioning must demand and secure sufficient coverage, quality, sustainability and affordability and must reject the supplier motivated by shareholder profit to the exclusion of multi-stakeholder, community and above all user benefit. Reasonable surplus for fulfilling a civic function should be the basis of the public service transaction and the delivery of impact in such terms must be effectively overseen.

The mature social enterprise is an ideal model for public service delivery and a mature commissioning process, applying integrated social value principles, would recognise this and require the same standards from any other type of supplier.

The mature social enterprise is an ideal partner for the innovative re-design of public services.

All of these issues are common across Europe and the sharing of variations in system, approach and initiative represents an extremely valuable source of learning and the opportunity for the exciting realisation trans-European social solidarity.

We would be very pleased to hear from anyone with an interest in this area, as we seek to share knowledge and insights within the ESELA Social Commissioning Group and thereby to support best practice public service commissioning. Please email Julian Blake at [email protected].

Julian Blake

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