Commissioning and procurement

When a regional leisure sector group met to discuss current thinking on the commissioning and procurement of cultural services David Albutt was there on behalf of CLOA to draw his own conclusions.

A level playing field for commissioning and procurement?

Since we are still struggling to define ‘leisure’, it may be asking a lot to get heads around ‘commissioning’ and ‘procurement’ but a recent joint event in Essex (commissioned by the long-standing regional gathering of institutes and associations with interest in ‘active leisure’ and procured through the good offices of Leisure-net Solutions Ltd) helped to shed some light.

It is no coincidence that a report on commissioning in terms of the culture and sport sector was written by Roger Pontefract (paid for and procured by Sport England – see where we’re going here?) who (a) led the secondment team driving improvement in the public sector; and (b) chairs a primary care trust (PCT); commissioning is old hat in the health sector. Brian King covered this in his update of the improvement project when he set the scene for the conference.

Commissioning is a process that is greatly assisted by knowing what you want to achieve, assessing how well you are doing and, most importantly, agreeing an improvement plan that you can actually deliver. We do have our own tool for achieving this, the Culture and Sport Improvement Tool, itself developed from TAES. New Horizon’s Ewan Shinton shed light on this from the perspective of the evaluation he did of its use by the combined efforts of all the councils in Northamptonshire.

Knowing what you are trying to achieve and having a smart plan to do it better means you are in a position to decide what to do and how to do it. We have three basic options. One is to do it yourself, as Broxbourne do. Or you can contract with another organisation. At present this in effect means two further options (really, sub-options): there are ‘commercial’ companies who manage leisure services and there are leisure trusts who do the same (with a further sub-option that you can ask an existing trust to tender or you can look to establish a new one). Actually, these are not ‘trusts’ but maybe that is an explanation too far at this stage.

The commissioners decided that it would be good to compare and contrast the options, and Leisure-net thought it best to do this by asking people from each option to present and respond to questions. This might have been more fun but unfortunately the speakers were far too professional and reasonable, with each respecting the others’ points of view.

Broxbourne run their services in-house. For director of community services, Ian Orton, a key issue for this is around politics. Council members feel ‘ownership’ of the services, they see them as a great boon to the council in terms of branding and, from his perspective, in-house services keep his department high on the council agenda with himself at the top table. He listed some of the advantages:

• delivery alignment with corporate and community objectives and priorities
• opportunity to positively improve the council’s image, promote the brand and engender civic pride
• opportunity to positively improve the council’s trading position through appropriate capital investment
• ability to respond quickly to senior officer/member issues
• retention of specialist operational skills and knowledge than can be useful across the authority
• full authority control, ie programming, pricing and flexibility
• opportunity to secure and effectively benchmark competitive tender bids (keep the market competitive)
• all income retained by the authority
• stronger senior management and member ownership, interest and pride in services provided
• contributes to corporate thinking
• ownership
• clarity of financial performance – nothing can be hidden!
• joined-up work opportunities across all council services
• flexibility with respect to council use of facilities
• model provides balance between the need for commercial success and social inclusion

However, Ian does see some disadvantages:

• in-house is not always cheapest
• far more political influence
• do not have the expertise and economies of scale of a ‘parent’ company
• do not all have the funding opportunities
• limited career opportunities
• lacks a particular brand

Phil Collins used to be the director at Hertsmere Council but they looked at the options and decided to establish a leisure trust: Phil is now the managing director. The council wanted some ownership of the services, with any profits being ploughed back into the services, and also wanted the person heading it up to be ‘local’. On the other hand, they needed to make savings and they accepted that there would be advantages to the trust in not necessarily having to follow council procedures that were designed for the general purpose, not necessarily for a major leisure business. There are also some sources of funding not open to commercial enterprises.

Like Ian, Phil believes that there is room for a broad church of service delivery models, provided they are transparent. The strength of any delivery method is only as good as the people who operate within it and there is more to the equation than money. It is most important to remember who we are there for – the customer.

Phil does believe that the trust option brings advantages, which he summarises as:

• significant fiscal advantages – VAT, NNDR, etc.
• more ‘attractive’ partner when accessing grants and support funding
• community involvement in strategic issues
• independent of, yet associated with, local authority aims and priorities
• a tradition of partnership working
• business-orientated but with a public service ethos
• non-profit-distributing – money goes back into the business
• local management making strategic and practical decisions
• a hassle-free service for local councillors

Graham Farrant rose to the top in local government and is now chief executive of Leisure Connection. He points out that there are advantages to having a partnership with a large company that has the resources to ride out difficulties, such as the recent increases in fuel costs.

Graham said: “We are a market-leading provider of outsourced sports, leisure, arts and culture services to local authorities. This is underpinned by our operation of the prestigious Sport England sites. In addition we operate a small number of private leisure centres.”

Leisure Connection’s ‘key facts’ include:
• number in the market for quality
• operate the national Sport England sites at Lilleshall, Bisham Abbey and Holme Pierrepont plus the National Centre for Wheelchair Sport on behalf of BWSF (these sites also offer accommodation and special events)
• operate over 70 facilities across the UK
• employ over 3,500 staff
• operate nine arts and culture venues
• users range from local residents and elite athletes – “people like us”
• provide memberships and pay-and-play

It was evident that each ‘option’ has respect for the others and that there is space for a mixed economy. The debate is about having a level playing field so that the choice for a council was effectively about the service advantages rather than any irrelevant anomalies. Which brings us back to the issue of commissioning and procurement: using the Culture and Sport Improvement Tool to inform the commissioning process and even, as many councils are now doing, to support the procurement and contract management processes.


David Albutt is policy officer for the Chief Culture and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA) and the National Culture Forum

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The Leisure Review, February 2009

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“The strength of any delivery method is only as good as the people who operate within it and there is more to the equation than money. It is most important to remember who we are there for – the customer.”

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