Commissioning: A Public Interest Tech Blueprint for City Transformation

The year is 2050. You’re in Southend-on-Sea, a town at the English seaside. It is prosperous and connected, with quality of life to match. According to the city’s vision for 2050, developed in a huge participatory effort, this dream can become a reality as the towncharts its own course to grow into a sustainable and inclusive city. This is significant because today, Southend faces major challenges.  

An aging population and rising birth rates means that demand will continue to grow for public services. Climate change is threatening the much-loved coast. And its residents’ skills no longer fit the future needs of the economy. Being a coastal town close to London comes with economic privileges, but a transient community also results in a spate of low-level crime.  The solution, which comes after a decade of budget austerity followed by the devastating impact of Covid-19 is the local government letting go of the idea of being the universal and direct service provider for all as it has been for generations. Instead, the new, reimagined vision assumes that to be resilient in the future, the government will become an enabler for others to do more for themselves and the community.

Transformation and Rebirth– A Blueprint

Southend 2050 provides the roadmap for building the kind of community that instills pride and delivers joy to its active and involved residents. The message it conveys is simple: Our finances are severely constrained, we have a long list of unresolved issues, but we are determined to thrive. For the government, it’s a seachange as well. It is embarking on a fundamental pivot around how things are done. It wants to be more agile, efficient, entrepreneurial, and engaged with residents. It took on the challenge to lead the vision by example. Its inside-out transformation program is well underway, aligning a clear vision and delivery strategy with digital enablement, a commitment to its workforce of 1,800, and a declared appetite to accept the risk of placing bolder bets by investing in people and outcomes.

At the heart of this transformation lies commissioning, a practice that is widespread across the U.K., gaining acceptance over the past decade following a financial crisis and the collapse of a number of leading government contractors. Commissioning and commissions have a long history in public service, according to Benjamin Taylor, the CEO of the U.K.’s Public Service Transformation Academy. Although the practice takes many forms, at its core it’s always about taking a look at current conditions with the sole purpose of improvement. In Southend, “Commissioning is the process by which we understand the collective approach needed to deliver the Southend 2050 outcomes, and what we need to do with others to make them happen. In practice, this is not in-sourcing or out-sourcing but clearly ‘right-sourcing,’” explained the borough council in a recent public statement. In plain language, the government is abandoning decades of doctrine that drove outsourcing to private contractors in the hope that a competitive market would deliver better outcomes. I recently published a story about how Sefton, another small city in the U,K,, and its citizens used commissioning methods to cut its budget.

Commissioning in Southend is a formal framework adopted by the city council. It is built on a set of ten principles that govern everything the council does. Glyn Halksworth, the city’s transformation director, shared it with me in an interview we conducted a few weeks ago. At one point, I asked how many commissioners the city had. The answer was almost 100 out of a workforce of 1,800. My mental calculator got working. This percentage, applied to a city the size of New York, would yield 18,000 commissioners. But then he went on to tell me that if things go according to plan, the number will change. His answer will be everyone. This was much bigger than I thought. I had long been a fan of commissioners, officials who have an entrepreneurial mandate and mission to improve outcomes. But the idea that changing the way Southend works would give everyone the skills and a mandate to use these principles simply blew me away. Public interest technology practitioners will see many parallels between commissioning and PIT best practices, so it’s no wonder that the city is so confident in its task. 

The Commissioning Principles of Southend: A Primer

In its framework, Southend has developed detailed guidelines for each of its ten principles. Below are a handful of the principles and what they mean — also, how PIT practitioners can adopt similar strategies.

Focus on outcomes for our residents

Southend uses a whole system approach in which it focuses on ‘what’ the outcome is they are trying to achieve. Commissioning is expected to provide a space for innovation and to work together with citizens, colleagues, politicians, and others to co-design, co-produce and co-deliver — instead of the government doing everything for (and to) them. PIT-centered projects require a similar commitment. You can’t create change without involving and taking into account those who the change actually affects. 

The right people involved at the right stage of commissioning

Southend will invest in its commissioners, utilizing funding available such as the apprenticeship levy, to achieve the highest quality of decision-making around outcome delivery. They do this using a bespoke training package, underpinned and driven by an agreed set of core competencies that will develop the highest standard of commissioners possible. 

What does this mean? Everyone involved in the process has been assigned clear roles — politicians, executives, operational outcome leads, citizens. Commissioning in Southend follows the ethos of ‘doing with people’ and the city provides high support and high challenge leadership, enabling everyone to act thoughtfully in the public interest. This is a best practice for other PIT practices, too. 

Driving innovation

Southend is willing to embrace the opportunities created by new thinking and technology. One way of driving this is the use of Market Position Statements, documents issued to the public in which the city declares its service needs, gaps in provision, future needs, a vision of what services will look like, and how they will be funded. This data is combined with collaborative methods of procurement and agile project methodologies to develop new opportunities for innovation and change. 

High-quality, robust evidence informing our decisions

Southend wants to become an insightful government that recognizes and respects a range of intelligence, data, feedback, and knowledge that collectively tells the story of Southend. They emphasize the diagnostic element of commissioning: To identify patterns and drivers around an outcome and focus on the root cause of demand rather than its symptoms. Instead of relying only on hard data, they recognize user experience, community voice, and qualitative research as critical resources.

Optimizing social value

Commissioners have to think about how they achieve outcomes in a more integrated way. Rather than thinking about isolated services or in the short term, this approach requires commissioners to consider long-term costs and sustainability, and how inclusion of additional outcomes can reduce pressures in other areas. At its heart they ask a simple question: “If £1 is spent on the delivery of services, can that same £1 be used to also produce a wider benefit to the community?”

After speaking to leaders like Glyn Halksworth, I became aware of the sophistication that is emerging from deep, practical experience. In part, this is because commissioning was first practiced in the delivery of complex social care services. It grew out of dealing with hard problems in which partnerships across agencies and with community stakeholders were of the essence. Glyn himself has a background in dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, and mental health. Today, his job today is to elevate the practices that worked for complex social needs to be applied across city services like technology, transportation, and infrastructure works. One of the key insights he is trying to embed in all city activities is the importance of trust. Even in complex and commercial partnerships, trust is the basis of all contracts. In his experience, overly prescriptive approaches tend to stifle responsibility and agency to improve things. What Southend is seeking is a culture in which every official has the tools, and backing, to act to enable better outcomes – and enable others to do their part. 

Southend is not the only local government betting on the commissioning approach. It is one of the reasons why cities in the U.K. are four times more innovative with procurement than their American counterparts. Most importantly, commissioning is not limited to pioneering innovators in big cities like London. Instead, it is a practice adopted across small and large, resource-constrained and well-off communities. Sefton’s progress on reskilling its officials is a good indicator.

What makes the commissioning principles (and its practice) such a noteworthy phenomenon is precisely that it is not a fad, but has emerged out of complex services under severe financial constraints and has evolved out of a decades long experimentation with outsourcing, partnerships and collective approaches to outcomes. The fact that it is widely (and voluntarily) adopted across the country shows its viability. And instead of relying on drawing in elite, outside talent, the vast majority of commissioners are regular local government officials. As we look at the state of cities in the U.S., commissioning may help us envision ways to mainstream the many innovation practices that have emerged over the past decade. The U.K. provides a good template of a system-wide yet unforced transition to a better practice. In Southend, at least, user-centric design, enabling people and innovation are tools available for everyone.