Commissioning has become an increasingly important issue in UK public services, and its implications are being hotly debated. Many suggest that the third sector is well placed to take advantage of opportunities presented by competitive commissioning arrangements, the opening up of public services to new providers, and the Social Value Act 2012. But there is also concern that efficiency will take precedence over social value, possibly jeopardising the ‘comparative advantage’ of TSOs in this context.

Commissioning is not new but has been given a big push by the Coalition Government. The 2011 Open Public Services White Paper set out an increased emphasis on commissioning, and greater use of Payment by Results and outcomes based commissioning. It is closely linked to mechanisms such as Social Return on Investment and Social Impact Bonds. But there is still much confusion about what exactly commissioning is, and whether it is deeply embedded in different service areas and levels of government.

Researchers at TSRC are interested in understanding the reality and diversity of commissioning; its implications for those voluntary organisations that are directly affected, and its implications for the future of public services. Throughout our research we explore whether public sector commissioning is successfully engaging with TSOs to deliver integrated and holistic outcomes. 

Key questions

  • What is commissioning in different service areas, and what is the experience of third sector organisations in commissioning arrangements?
  • How do understandings of commissioning differ between commissioners, TSOs, and potentially, users?
  • Is it possible to identify good practice in commissioning?
  • How should we define success? How can social value be recognised alongside economic value in commissioning process? What are the ingredients of successful commissioning?
  • How does commissioning relate to the specification and measurement of outcomes? 

Current work

Projects currently underway include: 

  • Introduction to commissioning and the Third Sector, James Rees
  • Academic Literature Review, Ross Millar, James Rees, David Mullins, Rosie Meek
  • Commissioning and Mental Health, Robin Miller
  • Mental Health Project, James Rees, Robin Miller, Ross Millar
  • Commissioning and Measurement, Jenny Harlock
  • Evaluations and social value, Malin Arvidson and Helen Kara
  • Transparency and the open public service agenda: implications for the third sector, Malin Arvidson

Published reports

Next Steps

In the coming six months, we will publish a number of Working Papers related to commissioning on the TSRC website, as well as articles in peer-reviewed journals. We are also planning to host a one-day conference to discuss research findings, and engage with other academics and practitioners that share an interest in this topical and important area of research.

From Autumn 2012, a core team (Rees, Miller and Millar) will be conducting a project on mental health and commissioning in the West Midlands.  The research will focus on commissioning of services to support people with mental health difficulties.  It will explore commissioning practice and experience in four Local Authority areas based around the West Midlands

Research contacts

  • James Rees
  • Robin Miller
  • Ross Millar
  • David Mullins
  • Tony Bovaird
  • Rosie Meek
  • Jenny Harlock
  • Malin Arvidson
  • Fergus Lyon