Tuesday, 26 June 2012

How much to empowerment?

You’ll never guess what I learned in the back of this cab yesterday... 

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about commissioning recently. Having heard so many stories of bad commissioning (poorly thought through tenders, slashed budgets, no demand analysis, ineffective monitoring, prioritisation of price over quality...) the subject consumes much of my thinking.  And then suddenly, sitting in a taxi at the end of a long train journey, I realised that a good model was staring me in the face. There, on a laminated yellow card, was a table saying what I'd pay for getting in, mileage, luggage, cleaning costs etc.
It struck me that this set of charges effectively took price out of the equation of competition in the local taxi market. Freed from this consideration, other factors come into play; how quickly the cab will appear,  how reliable the service is, the courtesy of the operator, ease of ordering.....The choice is made on quality because I already know what I’ll be spending.

I have nothing against competition, in fact I quite like it. But there are some fields where competition on price is useless, and independent advocacy is among them. So I’ve been trying to identify relevant examples of other forms of competition and this table of tariffs gave me one.

I would argue that price driven commissioning in advocacy creates an incentive to provide poor quality. In independent advocacy, too many commissioning decisions appear to have been made on price. If current trends continue, the “advocacy” that is being commissioned is at risk of becoming a purely mechanical response to an identified need; neither seeking to change the system or empower the individual. That is not advocacy. Commissioning such services as advocacy, or pressuring advocacy services towards such a model, leads to a waste of public funds and denies people the support they need to have control over their own life. 

Price driven competition is at risk of defeating its own objective. It takes longer to be creative, create change, release someone’s potential or challenge systematic poor practice than it does to tick a box. Using price only comparisons in advocacy commissioning is like judging Masterchef on who can get their weekly shop at Lidl for the least money (in case of a draw, winner decided on speed). 

So why aren’t we looking for that tariff of fares? Why aren’t we saying, “This is the need in the area, these are the resources that are available. Show us what you can do with that. What difference will you make?” 

That would create competition based on excellence, make monitoring simpler and more relevant, make local commissioners accountable.... and make it more likely that people have a strong and equal voice. That's a destination it's worth paying to reach.