The principle behind commissioning has been around for a long time and in a lot of ways it makes sense. You need something done. How do you get the best outcome at the best price? You put it out to tender, where the relevant organisations, firms and individuals compete for the work, driving prices down and in principle driving the quality of the work up.
This process works for many areas of the private sector. A town needs a new train station, before the tender there is no train station, afterwards there is. A city needs an improved water system, before the tender the old system is in place, afterwards there is better quality water. A company needs some research done, before the tender there is no research, afterwards there is research that can be used and applied. The process of tender and commissioning works in this framework, there is a clear distinction in the situation before and after the process.
But in the work of the women’s sector, and the wider voluntary and community sector, there isn’t a distinction between before and after. Our work is continuous and ongoing. There is no end point. A project that helps one group of students doesn’t solve the whole problem as new children will enter school needing that very same education, help and support.
Commissioning is built on the principle of competition; the women’s sector is built on the back of the women’s movement using principles of trust, cooperation, community. Therefore, the commissioning process that has proved successful and productive for many areas of the private sector isn’t fit for purpose when supporting women’s organisations and the vital work they do within the community. Often, the very same community that the workers live and breathe in.
Because of this very reason, women’s organisations are often best placed to provide the services their community needs. They know the problems that the local people face and consequently know the services that they need. But through the commissioning process, these organisations are forced through lengthy, convoluted and expensive processes for diluting their services from what is needed to what is going to be commissioned. Whilst at the same time competing against other organisations in order to survive.
Small charities are the hardest hit, often with little resources available to dedicate to the tender process and finding it even harder to respond to the disproportionate requirements of the tender process.
The commissioning system needs to change so that it really understand the women’s sector and the vital ongoing services that it provides to all out communities, it needs to actively include the small and grass-roots organisations that have risen from the communities they serve and the process needs to be improved so that those from the communities get what they want and need not what the commissioner says they need.
But in the meantime, the feminist response to competitive tendering is to work in partnership. By refusing to compete against each other, the sector can ensure that our services remain complementary and meet the needs of our communities. We may have to work within the system, but because we are in the system, we can force the change we want to see.