A change of direction

By Léonie Cowen | 08 June 2021

Why is it so difficult to achieve good procurement solutions for children’s placements? Faced with escalating costs, increased demand (especially for older children with complex needs), insufficient supply, proposed regulation of unregulated provision, and the impact of COVID on services and costs, it is no wonder local authorities feel under pressure.

I feel there is a better model for the procurement for looked after children and this article identifies how to achieve this, offering practical suggestions for hard pressed local authorities with ideas as to how we can make these good solutions scalable and cost effective quickly enough to address the current huge problems.

There is no magic wand. These are services for the most vulnerable in our society and require their own procurement model based on an outcome focused collaborative approach. Partnership between the authority and provider – the organisation which cares for the child – must be at the heart of the procurement with a child focused procurement methodology and documents. All too often, current procurements use an inappropriate and rigid approach and documents adapted from a standard authority procurement designed to buy things, not services, for people.

I suggest a relationship-based collaborative model between one or more authorities and one or more providers with longer-term block contracts at its heart. This must be based on a modern flexible supportive procurement process and legal documents. Central to this are flexible block contracts, not rigid blocks which risk councils having to pay for unused places.

With flexible (or soft blocks) the council offers a commitment to purchase an agreed number of places, with regular reviews of volume and type of purchase to reflect market challenges plus the possibility of agreeing changes during the contract period.

The unit price may depend upon the volume purchased from time to time (cost: volume purchasing). The process must also include pre-procurement consultation and collaboration with providers to encourage market interest and ensure that the contract model is one which providers will bid for.

Working together must continue throughout the procurement and contract which, together with the specification, should include future placement planning and working together in a flexible way with regular informal discussions and positive (not adversarial) and formal contract management meetings supporting flexing of the contract where sensible. A longer contract period to allow for development of relationships and avoid wasted time on repeated procurement is essential.

The aspiration is for the authority to have greater security that they can buy the places needed at an agreed value for money price, and places which are nearer to the children’s home. A block model supports new investment by the provider or even the local authority. The investment may be in buildings and/or a quality assurance model for care staff or foster carers so that longer-term recruitment and retention is supported. It should allow for evidence based working with a better understanding of future need.

Improving the procurement model should build trust between councils and their providers as well as gradually reducing the gap between available places and market requirements through new investment, especially where needed most, such as services for older children with complex needs. This should reduce the number and cost of failed placements, providing better outcomes for children.

As saving money is key, is there any evidence this is possible? There are examples in the residential sector of where block purchasing and collaborative partnership working offer reductions in the cost of care, with the development of effective working relationships supporting planning for future needs. Anecdotally, these seem to be in spite of not because of the procurement models utilised, offering neither market-place precedents nor are they scalable.

I am working on a collaborative Department for Education-funded model which I believe is unique. It is fully co-produced between council partners (West Sussex, Portsmouth and Kent) and provider organisations (Independent Children’s Homes Association and Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers) with each having an equal role and place at the project board. The identified outcome is for the councils to be ready to procure viable pilots for services for older hard to place children.

We are currently continuing the process of seeking provider responses on the proposed procurement approach and terms. Providers have responded positively, encouraged by knowing that they are being listened to and the project has the support of their trade associations. The project outcomes in September will be an innovative, scalable procurement model including the heads of terms of the legal documents, which is ready to procure.

I am positive we can develop scalable, value for money models which support child focused relationships with effective partnership working between councils and their providers. This is achievable in a reasonable timescale even within the current unhelpful public procurement regime.

Léonie Cowen is a a solicitor and principal of Léonie Cowen & Associates and a procurement specialist


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