Qualitative survey of views from the independent and voluntary fostering sector in England, Scotland and Wales

  1. Introduction

The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers is the not for profit organisation that campaigns on behalf of independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) and the children for whom they care. We have 100 members who care for 90% of children placed in the independent sector across England, Scotland and Wales.

In June 2017, we undertook a survey to determine the views of our members on local authority commissioning practice across the three nations. The survey was completed by independent fostering providers caring for around 5,000 children in foster care.

The survey asked for views on commissioning consortia and commissioning undertaken by individual local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. We consulted with local authority commissioners and also included the specific questions they wanted us to ask our members. We asked members to grade local authority performance on various components of the commissioning process using the four judgements of inadequate, requires improvement, good and outstanding. Alongside the online survey, we also consulted with members about their views on commissioning in regional and country meetings, and through more in-depth on-to-one conversations. Conscious that we have often received negative feedback about commissioning (or procurement, as it often manifests itself), a primary aim of the survey was to identify areas of good practice and what works well, so that this could be shared with local authority colleagues to help shape and further improve commissioning practice.

We recognise that not all of the good practice that is happening in local authority commissioning teams will be reflected in this report. Providers, as well as local authorities, are operating in a hugely challenging climate for children's services and this limits that capacity for feedback and consultation throughout the sector. NAFP is committed to continue its consultation with members and will encourage them to continue to share their views on commissioning practice that has worked well. Over time, our objective is to collect further information that we can share with our local authority colleagues. We hope this will support them in developing arrangements that better meet the needs of children in care and which provides value for the public purse.

  1. The effectiveness of consortia arrangements

There were wide ranging views regarding how well consortia performed across England, Scotland and Wales. We asked members how well local authorities performed in the following areas:

  • How well do local authorities engage with the market prior to the implementation of commissioning arrangements?

Overall, providers feel that local authority consortia need to improve the way they engage with the market prior to the start of forrnal commissioning arrangements. Providers stated that although the term ‘co-production is being increasingly used, this is not borne out in reality, with local authorities still being the far more dominant party in the partnership. Clearly, there is a 'purchase-provider' relationship taking place, but our respondents felt that there were lost opportunities to improve the effectiveness of commissioning through greater collaboration prior to the start of any procurement. Providers commented that consortia leads are often uncertain as to how far the independent sector, or the organisations that represent them, can be included in the design of a procurement exercise and this means valuable opportunities to improve commissioning arrangements and contract documents are being missed.

"It seems that consultation meetings are there to tick boxes. It can be a four hour provider meeting of local authority presentations, a 20 minute question period and we’re out."

Providers said that genuine collaboration/co-production is needed to make real progress.

I regret that much is said of co-design and co-production. Our agency has experienced none and we currently work with over 60 local authorities on five frameworks. We need to sit down together and discuss/design the contract.”

The East Midlands consortia received the most positive feedback regarding the way it consulted with the independent sector whilst designing the framework with the only ‘outstanding judgement’ in this area from one of our members.

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.”

  • How well do local authorities develop contract documents that are fair and fit for purpose?

There was a common view that some unreasonable and unworkable contractual terms continue to be applied and that there is a need for contracts to be co-developed. Where providers voiced discontent with contract terms, this was because they felt these terms brought an unfair level of risk to them and they did not feel this was understood or acknowledged by commissioners. Approximately 50% of providers reported that they had not bid for a framework contract on at least one occasion due to the risk they felt the terms of the contract brought to their service. Providers reported that the North East 7 and East Midlands consortia had the fairest contract terms, although there was still room for improvement even within these.

  • How well do local authorities award and implement framework contracts?

Overall consortia scored well with recognition that this could be further improved. The West Sussex/Brighton & Hove consortium was praised for the way they administered the implementation of their framework. There was criticism regarding the way some consortia often managed the end of a framework contract with poor communication regarding the consortia’s ongoing intentions. Providers shared that too often a last minute extension would be announced, or a refresh which left them with little time to plan. In more than one instance a framework contract was extended after it had been terminated causing considerable concern to members about legal and insurance implications. The possible unlawful extension of an expired contract brings risk to both providers and local authorities. There was a strong view that participating authorities within a consortia need to consult with the providers at a much earlier stage about their procurement intentions so that the risk to all parties can be reduced.

  • Do consortia manage contracts fairly and effectively?

Views of this varied considerably with providers reporting different experiences of the same consortia. This indicates a lack of consistency in contract management and possibly an indication of varying expectations from independent providers. The East Midlands received positive feedback with 100% of respondents identifying them as a good consortia for managing the framework fairly and effectively. Providers also referred to their positive early experiences of the South Central Framework and shared that they felt quietly optimistic about this. Overall, providers reported a higher level of satisfaction over contract management arrangements when there was a named individual, with a proactive approach, leading on the management and monitoring of the contract for the whole consortia. Providers said it worked particularly well when this individual was seen as someone who could mediate fairly between parties and help resolve contract disputes.

  • How well do consortia approaches promote and support positive partnerships?

These results were less positive with our members reporting that there is a need for consortia to invest more in relational commissioning. Respondents also said that this was a difficult area to report on due to the varied arrangements across consortia. Some consortia invest in a lead contract manager who acts as a central point of contact and facilitates partnerships, whilst other consortia leave the contract management role to individual authorities in a consortia. Providers said that consortia leads and local authority professionals working in a consortia have different degrees of partnership skills and varying attitudes to the independent sector. This therefore made it difficult to give an overall score to one consortium. Several providers rated the Peninsula cost and volume consortium as being good at partnership work, with several providers sharing the view that this was largely down to the skills of the lead commissioner. North East 7 and South Central were the only consortia to receive some ‘outstanding’ judgements for their partnership work. The contract manager for the South Central framework also received praise, being recognised as an effective and objective mediator between local authorities and the independent sector and being particularly good at communicating on the progress of the framework.

Reference was made to the benefit of consortia partnership events which bring together officers from a number of local authorities and a range of independent providers. Respondents said they valued these events and the opportunity for wider networking. They also reported that these events are particularly valuable when there is opportunity for the independent sector to share their experiences and views with local authority colleagues.

  • How effective are consortia arrangements for monitoring framework contracts?

Most respondents held the view that this is an area that requires significant improvement. Members expressed frustration that consortia do not adequately consider monitoring arrangements when a contract is being designed. There was a view that monitoring arrangements are sometimes only communicated after the contract is let, meaning that providers have to estimate the proportion of the fee to allocate to their resource for monitoring. A further frustration is where numerous local authorities within a consortia will have separate and different monitoring arrangements, some requiring onerous and detailed data submissions with no explanation about how this will be used. Providers reported on the financial inefficiencies of this approach. Other consortia were praised for introducing centralised monitoring, where information is supplied to the framework manager who is then responsible for compiling reports and disseminating these to participating local authorities. The cost of this approach being far more efficient to both providers and local authorities.

Some monitoring is excessive and could be reduced and meet the same requirements. Big differences and approaches exist between frameworks which could be streamlined.”

  • Consistency of approach

Providers were asked if they had any experience of authorities seeking separate and more advantageous terms with providers when the local authority was already a member of a consortia arrangement. It appears that that some consortia arrangements are robust and all participating local authorities will adhere to the same arrangements. This appears to be more likely where there is a contract manager acting for the whole consortia. However, providers also reported that in some consortia, despite there being an expectation that all participating local authorities have a consistent approach to applying the contract, some local authorities will still apply separate pressure on providers to reduce fees.

I cannot see any benefits to this. The risks are that this behaviour undermines the whole purpose of a framework and agreed pricing.”

Providers also referred to ongoing problems with specifications and there being differing views between placement officers and providers about the level of support a child may need. There was a view that thresholds varied between participating local authorities. Too often local authorities judged a child as needing a 'standard' or 'core' placement, where in reality the provider felt that the child needed an enhanced level of support. Some providers felt that placement officers did not always fully understand that a lower fee means a lower level of support and for some children this could significantly increase the likelihood of their placement breaking down. Providers said that some local authorities appear to have a policy of only making ‘standard placements’ and that additional fees will only be agreed if there is later evidence this is warranted. Providers expressed concern about this practice and the impact it has on children who may then need to display an increased level of anxiety in a placement before funding for additional support is agreed.

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. This practice undermines working relationships, trust and is not in the spirit of any agreement or contract with a local authority, and in terms of other IFPs and local authorities who are signed up to a particular framework.”

Others held an opposite view believing that a looser application of a framework could be beneficial. One said that where they have ‘excellent relationships’ with local authorities, there have been times when both parties have decided to amend the terms of the framework to reach a compromise on particular terms. Where this happened providers were unclear about the impact on the wider consortia.

  1. Local authorities setting up their own commissioning arrangements

We asked our members how they felt when local authorities worked alone, choosing not to participate in consortia arrangements. Overall, providers said that when bidding to qualify on a framework contract or dynamic purchasing system (DPS), they prefer it when local authorities work together to establish and manage these. Working with several local authorities can create efficiencies, in that it reduces the duplication of tendering and monitoring information and the associated cost of this. Providers fed back that where local authorities act alone, the fees they submitted were sometimes higher than that for a consortia framework due to the inefficiencies of the solo approach. A number of providers reported that they often would not bid when a local authority acts alone, particularly when the authority is also a member of a wider consortia.

However, some providers also felt there was a positive aspect to local authorities working alone. Providers noted that in these circumstances it felt that there was often a greater commitment to partnership working from all parties. Communication could be better and they witnessed improved relationships.

The benefit is a possibility of a closer/individualised partnership – the risk is a wide range of reporting/monitoring visits and methods”

The overall consensus was that local authorities need to work as consortia to enable efficiencies in the sector, but to also invest more in developing trusting partnerships at a local level.

  1. Partnership working

In scoping the remit for this survey, our members shared that they are most concerned about the lack of relational commissioning and the lack of positive partnerships in some areas. From our discussions with members, we recognised that even within a local authority there can be varying degrees of positive partnership working and we asked providers to give their views on different roles with each local authority.

  • Local authority placements teams

Views on the ability of placement teams to work in partnership ranged from inadequate to outstanding. Interestingly, some providers rated a particular placements team as outstanding whilst others rated the same team as requiring improvement. Drilling down, it was evident that the skills of individuals working within placements teams is a key factor and this varies significantly. Providers felt that attitudes and approaches in placement teams can be influenced by the placement procedures under which they work, but also by the attitudes of senior management and by the culture of an authority. Providers referred to there being some outstanding partnership working by individuals in placement teams across the country. Local authority placement teams which received recognition for good and/or outstanding partnership work from three or more providers were Bournemouth, Croydon, Redbridge and Surrey.

Trust, positive attitudes towards the independent sector and placement officers being empowered and trusted to source and match placements within necessary timescales were factors considered to be essential for these partnerships to work effectively.

  • Local authority social work teams

The survey showed that providers were less satisfied with their relationships with local authority social work teams and overall felt that these could be more adversarial than the relationships they shared with placement officers. There was an overall view that social workers generally have a more critical attitude towards the independent sector and assumed (incorrectly) that the whole sector is 'profit-driven'. There was a view that independent providers are not always trusted by social work teams and that their foster carers are not treated as equal professionals. This can impact negatively on the whole partnership between the local authority and provider.

Providers felt that local authority social workers occasionally make operational decisions which impact on a provider's ability to deliver the required service under the contract. Providers talked about the difficulty of addressing these scenarios and the benefit of having a trusting relationship with local authority commissioning colleagues so they can make them aware of the external factors which impact on a placement. Some members shared examples of where local authority commissioning colleagues have acted as mediators and salvaged relationships between independent providers and social work teams and this was seen as extremely valuable.

Social work teams generally are good once our position of equality is established. We notice a large inconsistency within local authorities between children so it is difficult to give a local authority-wide view as it varies so much on a child by child basis.”

Surrey was the only local authority in England that was scored as outstanding in the way that some of its social workers worked with the independent sector.

  • Commissioning and strategic management

Views on these partnerships varied widely with respondents saying that some local authority commissioning managers had a full understanding of their services and that there were good levels of trust and information sharing. Local authority strategic commissioners which received recognition for good and/or outstanding partnership work from three or more providers were Birmingham and Nottingham City. These strategic commissioners were given praise for the way that they worked with the independent sector and the way they championed the principles of partnership working and co-parenting across their local authorities. Where views on local authority partnership working varied widely amongst providers, it appears this was largely for two reasons:

  • The providers experience of liaising with particular local authority officers. Providers fed back that there can be a wide variation of attitudes towards the independent sector from professionals within a local authority. Some individuals were described as ‘hostile’ and ‘damaging’. Others were referred to as having a genuine partnership approach with good levels of trust which provided the foundation for providers to deliver efficient and effective services.

  • The period being considered. As an example, one local authority was rated as both ‘outstanding’ and ‘requires improvement’ by providers. The ‘outstanding’ rating had referred to a time when an individual had been in post. After they left their post they had been replaced by an individual with a less trusting attitude towards the independent sector who had introduced approaches which providers felt were unhelpful.

The mix of attitudes in an authority was described by some as confusing and counter-productive. Providers felt this was an area which needed greater influence from leaders in the sector, as this was needed to develop a culture of trust and to see more positive partnerships between the statutory and independent sector.

Providers did not feel that local authority colleagues always appreciated that positive partnerships were critical to deliver value for money and how this relationship can be more valuable that any particular procurement approach. Providers shared that they will occasionally agree to placements at a lower fee where relationships with local authority colleagues are good, as they consider there to be a lower risk of incurring costs associated with managing negative relationships. Providers also shared that they will sometimes not consider referrals from local authorities where relationships are fractious. A number of providers made reference to the current state of the sector with its high demand and low supply and how this gives them a greater freedom to choose the partners they work with.

There was a shared view that local authorities who invest in positive partnerships are the ones more likely to have a greater choice of placements and to benefit from the added value that comes from these relationships.

  1. Sharing information on needs and provision

Providers said that this was an area for significant improvement. There was a view that local authorities needed to report on the needs and provision for all their looked after children, including those placed in local authority 'in-house' services and in the residential sector, so that this could enable providers to have a better understanding of emerging trends across the whole sector. There is also a frustration that local authorities working within a consortia will often have different methodologies for capturing data and so fail to provide an effective consortia picture.

Some providers also felt frustrated that there were not effective mechanisms in place for local authorities to consult with providers about the trends they are seeing in the sector. Providers noted that working with a number of local authorities and across a number of regions, they may see emerging trends before these are recognised by their local authority colleagues. Where providers are not effectively included in the design of commissioning arrangements, this valuable information is not being captured or considered.

6. Key factors influencing the effectiveness of contracts

a) Capped pricing

70% of providers felt capped pricing should not be used as it stifles innovation and development.

30% of providers felt that price capping was acceptable but only if the price capping is reasonable and is agreed with providers in the co-production of a contract.

47% of providers claimed that price caps had stopped them from tendering for a contract whilst 35% reported that the cap had not prohibited them from tendering.

18% of providers reported that this had not yet become a factor for them but that it may do in the future.

Some providers expressed concern about consortia acting as a purchasing consortium with a significant market share. They shared a view that price capping might be considered anti-competitive if members of the consortium agree what prices to offer suppliers. They shared a view that this could be a breach of the competition act.

Price capping is anti-competitive. IFPs should be allowed to charge what they want. If they believe their service is of a higher value to local authorities then they should be able to charge for this. If local authorities don’t believe this, they won’t pay.”

A number of providers shared that whilst they had bid for a contract with capped fees, they did not expect to be able to offer any/all placements at this rate. They had decided to bid so that they could have early sight of referrals. They shared that this was not in an effort to ‘be ahead’ of competition, but that it was a necessity due to the sequential placement procedures operated by local authorities often left too a narrow window to allow them to consider making an offer of a placement.

b) Tiering

Providers held varied views about the practice of tiering acknowledging that this brings benefits and risk to both commissioners and providers. Some providers were sympathetic to the reasons why tiering was used by some local authorities, understanding that this encourages agencies to submit lower prices. However, overall providers did not agree with tiering citing the negative impact on children being the main reason that tiering should be abolished. This was a view shared by the majority of providers regardless of the position they held in tiering arrangements.

We feel a placement for a child should be based on a child's individual needs and the best match to a family, not based on tiering”

I do not believe tiering should be used as it does not open up placement choices for children; incurs additional resources and focuses the attention on the need to move up the tier rather than positive outcomes for children being the sole focus”

Some providers felt that tiering was also done to manage the quantity of referrals that are active at any one time.

It does restrict access to placement choice. I guess without it then the local authority placement team would have an onerous task if the referrals went to all providers in the first instance.”

However, this problem was discounted by some providers who felt that if local authorities made proper use of technology, they could filter their audiences to target only those providers that could meet a child’s specific needs, such as geographical distance from school. Overall, most providers disagreed with tiering on the basis that they felt this did not facilitate the best match for a child. Respondents understood that tiering may appear cost effective for local authorities and advantageous for those providers on first tiers. However, there was a strong view that this was a false economy and tiering did not allow access to the best placement match and as such increased the potential for placement turnover and increased costs.

No, tiering systems should not be used, they are largely based, if not always, upon price. Tiering separates IFPs based on cheapness, doesn't afford young people the choice of best placement and can delay the identification of a suitable foster placement.”

Some providers referred to the local authority in-house fostering service as having the status of automatic preferred provider, without any procurement exercise having taken place, amounting to an exclusive first tier. This can be a barrier to facilitating placement choice and good matching.

c) Understanding of local authority in-house fostering service costs

Providers unanimously felt that local authorities do not have an accurate understanding of their in-house costs and that this consequently had an adverse impact on the effectiveness of commissioning strategies. Relative costings may not include full costs, so not necessarily compare like-for-like cohorts pf children (IFPs generally care for older children and those with more complex needs), do not account for quality and are not linked to outcomes.

The false assumption that in-house placements are cheaper is the root of the problem we have in the sector. We have commissioning strategies completely based on a fundamental flaw.”

Local authorities believe "in-house" is best value and more cost effective. This isn't always the case and local authorities choose to ignore the true cost of "in-house" placements as it fits with their own agenda and that of IFPs are making extortionate charges, which we aren't.”

There was a view that in-house costs were assumed to be cheaper and that commissioning strategies were developed around this assumption. Providers said that the in-house first policy operated by all local authorities is a false economy as commissioning is largely budget led, rather than child led, which will not ensure delivery of outcomes and longer term value for money that outcomes provide. Some respondents said that the current difficulties with sufficiency had been predicted and was a direct result of commissioning focusing on short term cost saving rather than on meeting long term needs.

Those of us who have been in the sector a long time said this crisis (placement shortage) would happen as soon as we saw increased pressure on budgets. We warned everyone about it, but were considered to be self-serving independent providers. The chickens have now come home to roost and the situation will get worse unless the needs of children are genuinely put first.”

Highly specialist providers did not show as much concern about the way in which local authorities costed their own services, noting that their own specialism meant that they were not in competition with the local authority.

d) Transfer of placements to new contracts ('novation')

Providers were asked for their views on whether or not existing placements should automatically transfer over to new framework contracts where old contracts expired. Providers took different views and this was largely down to their individual experiences of how placements were managed when framework contracts came to an end. Some providers had experienced a seamless transfer to new arrangements which overall had similar terms resulting in no greater risk for the purchaser or provider. Other providers referred to expectations for them to transfer to new arrangements at a reduced fee and with further risk factors. The overall consensus was that any expectation to transfer a placement to a new contract would very much depend on the terms and conditions of the new contract.

There is no problem about transferring existing placements onto a new contract providing it is made clear within the bid and there is enough time to calculate the impact before submitting a bid. The result will inevitably be a higher price on new placements to compensate for losses and if too great, for smaller agencies, a willingness to remain off contract and undertake spot purchase and preserve the original contracted income. This is already increasing as the current agency consolidation increases and placement availability drops. The obverse to the question is ‘can LAs afford to lose good agencies from their contracts and pay the dividend required in spot purchase which will inevitably rise in cost?’ The price reduction/control mechanism this was is less effective in a shrinking market and has probably served its purpose at the current time”.

Overall providers felt that this was an area that required careful and considered discussion between commissioners and providers with both agreeing on a mutually acceptable way forward.

e) Contract 'call-off' arrangements

There is a mixture of arrangements across the country with local authorities either sending referrals via email or through an online portal. Providers reported that this is currently an area of significant activity as local authorities are increasingly considering the merits of using portals to reduce the risks that email brings. Providers offering services to a large number of local authorities expressed a frustration at having to register on a variety of different placement portals, the inefficiency of training staff on these and the costs of duplicating information on various systems. Providers also commented that local authority staff sometimes were not adequately trained on using new technology and so this could further hamper the matching process. Providers felt that this was an area which may benefit from some national oversight to reduce the number of different portals being used.

There was also a view that call off arrangements did not receive enough attention within contracts. One example given was the way in which tiers are used. Most providers are of the understanding that being on the first tier of a contract means having first sight of referrals and the opportunity to consider placements prior to the referral being sent out to the wider market. However, in practice local authority placement officers are often sending referrals out to all framework providers at the same time (or within short succession) due to the shortage of placements in the sector. This therefore brings a risk to a provider who may have offered a lower fee on the understanding there would be limited competition. However, providers also recognise how it is critical to reduce the delay in sending referrals out to the sector so that providers have time to consider if a placement can be offered.

There was a view that, in designing contracts, strategic managers do not consult adequately with placement officers and providers responsible for sourcing and matching placements to make sure that the call off arrangements respond to the realistic demands of the sector and are fit for purpose.

Whilst some providers acknowledged the benefits and potential of online portals to more quickly identify a choice of placements, there was some concern that this new technology brought risk to relationships. Providers said that portals needed to be seen as tools which could aid communication and should not be used as an alternative to essential dialogue, not replacing social work conversations about what is the best match for a chid.

f) Quality of referral information

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. This makes it hard for providers to offer a placement and the current quality of referrals was described as ‘the weakest area of commissioning’.

There is a lack of paperwork provided on the child and we are constantly having to chase for documents and consents”

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. This is still the weakest part of commissioning.”

Members felt that the person who knows the child the best should co-produce these documents with social workers. Where providers were unable to meet the needs of a child and there were plans for a new placement to be sourced, providers said that too often they were left out of the planning process. Providers stated that they would be willing to work with local authorities to ensure their knowledge of the child contributed to ensuring referrals were accurate for new searches. However, due to time constraints or an uncertainty over policy, local authorities did not always afford opportunity for providers to engage in this part of the planning process.

Local authorities need to ensure that referrals sent our are honest and up to date so that we make good, safe matches where any extra costs are known up front”

7. Arrangements for monitoring contracts

Not one local authority was considered as outstanding for their monitoring arrangements. Several were rated as requiring improvement with a few having inadequate monitoring practice. Although views were mixed, providers gave some positive feedback on the way that some local authorities monitored their services and felt that where this investment was made, it aided relationships.

On the whole, monitoring is good for the larger frameworks, we enjoy meeting local authorities in contract monitoring visits, this helps to support relationships”

We have regular monitoring visits - some are more effective than others as some are tick box exercises where other visits involve them getting to know us as an agency, they give advice and guidance rather than act in an authoritarian way”

The main message from providers was that monitoring arrangements vary widely across the country:

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. It could be made easier by standardising monitoring reports across the UK or integrating Ofsted dataset information.”

Providers suggested there needs to be a consensus between both commissioners and providers regarding what needs to be monitored and why and that this needs to be agreed when designing a contract. There was a shared view that providers should not be expected to submit information that is already submitted to Ofsted and available to commissioners.

Most request data which appears to be solely asked for to populate their data return to Ofsted. I am rarely asked for qualitative data of the kind our quality assurance focuses on. More straightforward contracts are easier to monitor and the contractor needs to be clear what the data is for as it is a significant cost driver for providers. Local authorities can have whatever data they wish but they pay for the data by paying for the staff we need to provide it.”

There was also a view that the effectiveness of framework contracts needs to be better informed by the progress being made by children in placements. Some providers felt that commissioners did not have sufficient knowledge of existing statutory arrangements for reviewing and monitoring placements and so did not embed these effectively into the monitoring of both framework contracts and individual placement agreements. One example given was the monthly reports submitted to social workers which report on a child’s activity and any progress being made on their outcomes. Providers did not know if there were internal mechanisms within local authorities for sharing these reports with commissioners. The same was said of the looked after child’s review process which did not always consider the outcomes the provider is expected to deliver under the contract.

I cannot comment on this because despite being on a framework for 12 months I have not been aware of any explicit contract performance monitoring. It may be happening – but to us and not with us.”

Overall, there was felt to be a disjoint between the monitoring of the contract and the statutory monitoring and reviewing of a placement and a view that this needed to be better linked to ascertain the effectiveness of the commissioning arrangement. Local authorities rated as good by more than one provider for the way they monitor their framework contracts were Barnet, Bournemouth, Cambridgeshire, Dorset, Essex, Islington, Leicestershire, Nottingham City, Surrey, Warwickshire, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire.

8. Scoring of provider statements about commissioning

In our preliminary survey, some providers made statements regarding their experience of working with local authorities. These statements were shared with our members in the main survey to obtain a picture of how much they agreed or disagreed.

0 – Strongly agree ---------------------------------------- Strongly disagree - 100

  1. There has been a significant drop in local relationships between purchasers and providers

Responses ranged 10 – 100, average score of 53

Very varied views were received from providers suggesting that relationships have developed differently across different local authorities. Some have improved whilst others appear to have deteriorated.

b) Placing authorities become critical of the independent sector when crises and emergencies occur

Responses ranged from 0 – 76, average score of 31

Whilst there were a small handful of providers that disagreed with this, the majority of respondents felt this statement to be true.

c) The level of avoidance and hesitation/obfuscation is a significant barrier to effective planning, competition and service delivery

Responses ranged from 0 – 85, average score of 33

Very varied views indicating that providers are having different experiences depending on the consortia and local authorities they work with. Overall, providers views lent towards agreeing with this statement.

d) We need to improve communication and collaboration

A key issue is the 'them & us' philosophy (and some local authorities seemingly having a mistrust of all IFPs, thinking they are mainly motivated by money).

Responses ranged from 0 – 80, average score of 30

Providers operating in Scotland or those offering highly specialist services tended to disagree whereas the majority of providers located in England and Wales agreed with this statement.

e) Commissioners need to understand the different services we deliver and not simply view all IFPs as being the same

Responses ranged from 0 – 100, average score of 27

The majority of respondents agreed with this statement with small and specialist providers more likely to strongly agree.

f) Local authority commissioners do not have sufficient understanding of how their behaviour affects the sector

Price capping; onerous tenders; forced novation of existing placements; delays in tendering; unfair terms, etc. This all affects IFPs ability to deliver value for money services. Commissioners need to work with providers and NAFP more to understand what does work.

Responses ranged from 0 – 100, average score of 21

The vast majority of our members agreed strongly with this statement. Only two providers disagreed, one being based in Scotland and one provider based in south east England.

g) Some local authority social workers do not have sufficient knowledge of contract arrangements and will try to micro-manage placements

Some believe they are in a position of authority and will direct our staff and foster carers how to work. This can make it very difficult for us to deliver the services we have been commissioned to provide.

Responses ranged from 10-90, average score of 38

There were very varied views about this suggesting that the way that local authority social workers are supported to work with the independent sector can vary significantly between and within local authorities.

h) Influential leaders in the sector have talked disparagingly about the independent sector inferring that the sector is motivated by profit

This has damaged relationships with local authority commissioning colleagues and social work teams. Subsequent changes in commissioning behaviour has impacted on our ability to deliver value for money services.

Responses ranged from 0 – 80, average score of 24

The majority of providers strongly agreed with this statement. Providers in Scotland were an exception and did not feel that leaders there held the same view about the independent sector as leaders in England and Wales.

Given that providers feel there is a largely negative attitude towards the independent sector we sought their views on whether they believed that external support/mediation would lead to more effective commissioning arrangements.

I believe that this support and mediation is essential in this specific sector and NAFP has been able to effectively tackle and head off many potential issues by intervening at an early point in framework design”

Yes, mediation is needed. Understanding of our sector, acknowledgement of each others positions and constraints we all face improves relationships. In my experience honest, open and regular dialogue promotes the most successful frameworks/working arrangements and outcomes for children and young people.”

Overall providers felt that mediation (an interesting choice of word, given its application to two parties who disagree but for whom a mutually beneficial settlement would be in the best interests of all) would facilitate effective commissioning arrangements. There was a view that this needed to be provided with a party that had a good knowledge of the foster care sector. Scotland Excel were given commendation for the support they provide to the local authority and independent sector partnership. This is a welcome message following on from significant challenges arising from the earlier National Contract in Scotland. A number of respondents stated that although many local authorities refer to co-design and co-production, this does not materialise in practice and the lack of independent oversight may be a contributing factor which prevents the provider sector from being seen as an equal partner.

Providers also expressed optimism for the South Central Framework and praised the consortia for being the first to appoint an independent party to evaluate the effectiveness of their commissioning arrangements.

9. Questions from local authority commissioners

When designing the survey, NAFP consulted with local authority commissioning colleagues and invited them to suggest questions that they wanted the survey to include. These questions, and the responses them have been included below:

a) Please give examples of good commissioning and your reasons why this has worked well:

  • Pre-commissioning information, surveys and meetings. The Falkirk tender submission was more straightforward and accepting of inspection grades, policies and procedures, certificates without having to answer numerous additional questions.

  • Rotherham efforts for the existing contract was notable, structured and came the closest I have seen to any real attempt at a partnership approach. It was based on open debate, level playing field and equal in house and external reporting mechanisms. There was an acceptance of more tailored provision being a short term expense to reduce longer term major care costs. The contract was clear and relatively brief. The consultation and post contract meeting held were exemplars of open structured, mature discussion.

  • Birmingham – on officer in particular has a direct and common sense approach respected by all providers. There will always be a straight answer even if it is not the one you seek!

  • The North East consortia has developed over the years through good working relationships and consultation. This has aided service development.

b) What hasn’t worked so well and how could that be changed in the future?

  • There is a lack of communication and transparency around local authority internal procedures and knowing more about these would help develop more trusting and effective partnerships between the independent sector and local authorities.
  • The tendering process(es) need to be simplified. Some are very lengthy/complex, especially for tender renewals, some of which are as complex as a new tender submission.
  • Communication is generally poor and needs to be improved. We need a central point of contact to go to when contracting issues arise. There are often too many people involved and a lack of responses.
  • There are too many commissioners who do not know anything regarding fostering and /or about the independent sector and consequently the arrangements that are put into place do not meet needs and are not fit for purpose. It would be beneficial for local authorities to recruit individuals to commissioning positions who have experience of the sector.
  • Sometimes the actions of local authority officers outside of the commissioning team can jeopardise commissioning arrangements and partnerships. For example, when our foster carers are told that they need to transfer to the local authority if they want to keep the child. This type of behaviour seriously risks damaging the relationship both parties have invested in. It is helpful when commissioning teams work with their local authority colleagues to help them to recognise the risk to all parties, and particularly to children, of working against the independent sector.
  • Where commissioning timescales change due to complications arising from poor consultation. Local authorities don’t seem to appreciate how much smaller providers have to plan our services around these. Ensure adequate time for designing the contract and do this with providers so there are no surprises for either party.
  • Attitudes to the independent sector need to change. There can be a lack of communication from local authorities and an inflexibility. In some areas there is a blame culture and a hard line approach to negotiation to the detriment of young people.

c) What information/commitment do you need from commissioners to enable you to provide high quality, value for money placements?

  • Working in partnership, sharing information in regards to sufficiency, future commissioning plans. Clarity on the quantity and potential growth in numbers required throughout the term of the contract.

  • To champion the need for our foster families to be treated as fellow professionals.

  • To be promptly provided with all the information we need. The Individual Placement Agreement, consents, placement and care plan paperwork.

  • Only request data that is needed and used. Stop moving children out of placements to fill up in house vacancies...It is just a placement disruption the cost of which is greater than any perceived "saving".

  • To ensure that referrals sent out are honest and up to date so that we make good, safe matches where any extra costs are known up front.

  • Look at each child as an individual worthy of support and investment.

  • Quicker decision making on offered placements. Often we get no feedback at all and are left having to chase the social worker to see whether a placement has been made.

  • To be honest, reasonable and realistic and understand that IFPs are not the answer to all the financial difficulties in the fostering sector.

d) Local authorities can struggle to find placements for particular groups; teenagers, siblings, parent/ child. How can we all work together to improve the supply of carers for these specific groups?

  • Local authorities need to update IFPs regularly where they have placement shortages. We record our own statistics to build up this picture and already use this in our recruitment strategy based on referrals sent to us.

  • Understand the costs of what you require, work with providers to be clear on the need now and in the future. Share statistics and trends to aid recruitment.

  • Agencies struggle with this all the time as well! Foster carers are rare beasts even rarer are those who want a fully "inherited family" and can afford a house with three spare rooms. Parent and child training is fairly complex and not all carers are suited...we are not holding any back!! Sadly older teenagers have become code for 16+ ex residential into foster placements or challenging younger children from residential placement. Step down can work but takes additional up front cost and time to achieve - measured in months and thousands not days and pennies. These demands cannot be funded at current rates by insisting most placements are core/basic. Frameworks have largely de-skilled the independent sector as it could not train, retain or provide what local authorities could not pay for.

  • Focusing national promotions on targeting specific group. Attempting to breakdown negative image of these particular groups.

  • Use the data provided by IFPs in monitoring reports to be proactive and share information in terms of needs /trends regularly. Don't place children and then remove them in-house asap which then places IFPs in a difficult position regarding recruitment and retention.

e) Is there anything that providers could do differently to help local authorities commission better? If so, how can local authorities support the sector with this?

  • Providers can promote working in partnership through strong communication.

  • Providing information regarding the outcomes for young people, review placements regularly to identify needs/change of services.

  • Co-design and co-production will help but the framework legacy has been a success in market price compression, the loss of specialist provision and the reduction of placements/carers and agency competition are some of the consequences. The real question is still from local authorities how can we do it cheaper and the answer to that is we can't. The answer therefore has to be a change in the costs and risk approach to childcare beyond the annual horizon. We could provide social work support from spare capacity at cost under delegated authority. This would reduce the agency overhead for local authorities. We offer training at cost or on occasions, free but there is the trust issue that we will merely poach carers! It is a shame staffing in local authorities cannot allow a staff exchange scheme to increase good relations. We are happy to share how we review and cost the contracts to help reduce cost issues and aid some co-production? Sadly I feel that the subtext of the question remains how can we cut costs? We cannot. From now onwards all costs will rise in an economy with a 2.5% CPI. The step down, older placements and parent and child costs will rise. As agencies reduce, placement costs will rise. This will be most evident in the areas of most limited competition.

  • We must all keep our high standards. If any independent fostering agency is perceived negatively, this risks affecting how all our agencies are perceived.

  • We all need to invest more in relationships and be the partner we expect others to be. To lead by example.

f) What would an ideal world look like in terms of pre-qualifying IFPs and meeting procurement duties?

  • A system or method that promotes innovation, fairness and a high standard of care for looked after children.

  • One national portal so the information submitted and updated is available for all procurement/commissioning teams to access.

  • Centrally registered compliance requirements for the majority of PQQ compliance questions that remove the need for filling out every contract PQQ queries that are all virtually identical. The use of the National Contract that would have to have only individual variations published by the framework or local authority. The understanding that the Individual Placement Contract does not require the repetition of all the contract terms within it, as that is the function of having the framework document. Agreed compliance and data submissions against a clearly identified output requirement.

  • Minimal documentation, reduce tender requirements, duplication, provision of information which appears to disappear and never be used, analysed or shared to inform trends etc.

10 Recommendations

  1. Invest in the use of meaningful collaborative approaches to enable local authorities and independent providers to work together to co-design commissioning approaches, contractual documentation and monitoring arrangements.

  2. Ensure that partnerships events are more balanced and give the independent sector an equal opportunity to share messages with local authority colleagues.

  3. Bring forward planning timescales so that consultation regarding the extension or termination of a commissioning arrangement can be more effective and meaningful.

  4. Ensure that framework contracts have an identified local authority contract manager lead (with deputising arrangements) with a remit to mediate fairly between parties and help resolve contractual disputes.

  5. Ensure that monitoring arrangements are balanced between ensuring an efficient data return to inform all participating local authorities within a framework, whilst also ensuring there are one-to-one provider and purchaser partnership meetings.

  6. Consider how the statutory review and case management arrangements can better inform the monitoring of provider performance, without duplicating through contract monitoring what these systems already record.

  7. Ensure that 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.

  8. Sector leaders should champion the need for trusting and positive relationships.

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