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Public sector commissioning and the third sector

24 February 2014

Public sector commissioning has risen rapidly to prominence as the central mechanism for the ‘purchase’ of services in an increasingly mixed economy of public services in the UK and this has wide-ranging consequences for non-state actors including those in the third sector. 

Academic consideration of commissioning has been rather fragmented, concerned with particular service fields or sectors. This paper provides an overview, with a focus on the relationship between the state and the third sector. 

The paper begins by questioning whether commissioning is really ‘new’ or a continuation of existing trends around procurement and contracting and whether it constitutes a genuinely transformative relationship between the state and third sector. It considers some core debates about the likely impact of commissioning on the third sector and its relationship with the state. In doing so, the paper advances two main arguments: that commissioning remains highly fragmented in policy and practice, between different localities and scales of government; and that there is a tension within commissioning policy between the ‘rhetoric’ of the ‘full cycle’ approach based on needs assessment and planning, and what appears to be an emerging reality of resource-constrained, large-scale and Payment by Results-based contracting. These raise real concerns for organisational and service quality outcomes.

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