The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP), Independent Children’s Home Association (ICHA) and the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS) represent over 400 providers of children’s services, meeting the needs of over 17,500 children. A joint survey by the three providers' organisations in 2012 highlighted faults in local authority procurement of their services. The 47 responses were relatively evenly split between fostering providers, children's homes providers and special schools. The 47 organisations are collectively responsible for over 4,000 placements for children and young people in England and Wales. Over half work with 22 or more local authorities and over three-quarters work with more than 10.
Headline findings from survey:
Respondents highlighted several factors which hinder providers in procurement activity. A key factor was poor quality or no information provided by local authorities. Providers also noted that framework agreements were not honoured by the local authority
Procurement activity takes up an increasing amount of providers’ time. This usually equates to a member of staff working almost full time on procurement. Whilst approximately 40% of respondents believe that this means increasing placements, there are many concerns about the impact on providers.
Procurement activity is too focused on cost rather than the needs of the child and is too bureaucratic. Key personnel are frequently diverted from deploying their accumulated knowledge and experience to completing imposed non-child directed tasks. This has significant financial costs in a climate with little scope for increasing fees and a commitment to high quality children’s services.
The Government should create a national procurement framework for all local authorities and reduce paperwork for providers which work with multiple authorities.
European Union Procurement Rules increasingly drive the purchasing of children's services from the voluntary and private sectors. Respondents ask the Government to oppose plans to remove the category of Part B services, which will leave placements for vulnerable children and young people open to tendering, even with the proposed threshold raise from 200,000-500,000 Euros.
Recommendations for national government:
The findings suggest that the Government should create a national procurement framework for all local authorities. This would reduce paperwork for providers who work with multiple authorities. Our organisation would be delighted to work with the Government to drive this vision.
The Government oppose reforms to European Union Procurement Rules including plans to remove the category of Part B services, which will leave placements for vulnerable children and young people open to the tendering process. Many placements for children with high needs will exceed the proposed new threshold of 500,000 Euros and will fall under full EU Procurement rules.
Recommendations for local authorities:
- Be open and transparent about the process and assessment criteria.
Build and maintain relationships with providers – this enables us to better understand your needs and ensure that we meet the needs of the children and young people that you place with us.
Ensure that local authority procurement officers are trained in understanding the needs of children and young people and are supported by children’s professionals.
Try to develop rather than control the market by focusing on issues such as innovation and price flexibility rather than price fixing.
Simplify and reduce the amount of requested information.
Develop two tier processes with minimal information provided at stage 1. Providers which meet the selection criteria can then be asked for more detail at stage 2. This would ensure that unsuccessful providers need not invest the same amount as time as in a single stage process.
Create more opportunities to meet providers regularly. This helps develop trusting relationships. Involve your in-house providers in these events to create a “level playing field”.
Views from the independent and voluntary fostering sector in England, Scotland and Wales on commissioning of fostering services (2017)
Approximately 50% of independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) reported that they had not bid for a commissioning framework contract on at least one occasion due to the risk they felt the terms of the contract brought to their service.
“Commissioning is not an end in itself, it is merely a tool to provide the service required. There are too many tools and not enough service.”
Respondents said that some local authorities appear to have a policy of only making ‘standard placements’ and that fees for extra support will only be agreed if there is later evidence this is warranted.
“This isn't in the best interests of young people, who will be placed based upon the cheapest offer rather than a well matched foster placement which meets their needs.
The quality and completeness of referrals was described as ‘the weakest area of commissioning’. There was widespread concern that referrals do not always provide accurate information about a child or give clarity about what is expected from a placement.
“We need transparency, consistency and effective referral details with the quality of data and requirements that ensures the best chance for the child to get a good match.”
Our members are really concerned about the lack of positive partnerships and this can vary even within one local authority. Attitudes and approaches can be influenced by those placement procedures which prioritise the 'cheapest first' option. Some IFPs tell us that they will not accept referrals from local authorities where relationships are fractious. Although there are pockets of good practice, we would like to see a significant commitment to meaningful collaborative approaches. This would enable local authorities and independent providers to work together to co-design commissioning approaches, contractual documentation and monitoring arrangements that would make commissioning much more effective.
“It is very fractured - many local authorities ask us for information they already hold, and each local authority will require information in a slightly different format.”
Providers prefer it when local authorities work together to establish and manage framework contracts or dynamic purchasing systems. Working with several local authorities creates efficiencies for all parties. The best local authority consortia often appoint a lead commissioner who can act as an important link between agencies to settle disputes.
The report makes the following recommendations:
- Invest in meaningful collaborative approaches to enable local authorities and independent providers to work together to co-design commissioning approaches, contractual documentation and monitoring arrangements
- Ensure partnerships events are more balanced and give the independent sector an equal opportunity to share messages with local authority colleagues
- Bring forward planning timescales so that consultation regarding the extension or termination of a commissioning arrangement can be more effective and meaningful
- Ensure framework contracts have an identified local authority contract manager lead (with deputising arrangements) with a remit to mediate fairly between parties and resolve contractual disputes
- Ensure monitoring arrangements balance an efficient data return with one-to- one provider-purchaser partnership meetings
- Consider how statutory review and case management arrangements can better inform the monitoring of provider performance
- Ensure placement procedures empower local authority placement teams to commence searches in the independent sector at the earliest opportunity – to enable greater choice and better matching – and to work together to make better use of vacancies across the sector
- Sector leaders should champion the need for trusting and positive relationships