One of the fundamental tasks of any government is to ensure the people and communities, especially those experiencing disadvantage, have access to the services and supports they need to lead full lives. But getting it right is extraordinarily difficult. Historic approaches have included welfare states and introducing corporate principles to public governance, yet many citizens remain dissatisfied with their experience – some feeling looked down upon by ‘decision-makers’, others that the complexity of their situation and interlocking needs are not properly understood.
Since the late 1990s, “commissioning” as a term has gained steady ground as a new approach to the design and delivery of human services. This includes recently in Australia, where in 2014 the New South Wales (NSW) Government began exploring commissioning as a way to fund non-government community organisations to deliver community-based services in areas such as community wellbeing, housing security and ensuring the safe environments for women, children and others in need.
But what is commissioning? How is it different from previous methods of contracting service providers? And, most importantly, can it put people’s needs and aspirations at the centre of service design and delivery?
These are the questions the Policy Lab explored with a coalition of peak bodies in the NSW community sector from mid-2019 to early 2020, along with the fundamental question: what is our collective vision and how do we build the relationships to move forward together to meet the needs of the communities we serve?
The resulting research brought together state-of-the-art academic knowledge, international best practice expertise and deep local experience. Initial insights from desktop research were tested and enhanced through a series of participatory workshops and one-to-one interviews with over 30 people across international practitioners, the NSW community sector and the NSW Government.
“For me, commissioning is about thinking through what outcomes we’re seeking to achieve as a group of people—government, non-government, communities themselves - then how do we work together as a system to achieve those outcomes?”
The final report introduces the tool of a commissioning jigsaw—six core questions that commissioners must engage with to shape any experiment – as well four fundamental principles which, when taken together, form a lens through which the government and community sector ought to approach the design of commissioning initiatives in NSW: putting relationships first, letting communities lead, embedding learning and investing in people.
“We’ve been funded to do the same kind of things for a long time. Commissioning is an opportunity to let go of what we’ve been doing and start from the point of what we are trying to achieve.”
Research team: Professor Susan Goodwin, Professor Marc Stears, Dr Elaine Fishwick, Lisa Fennis and Mark Riboldi.
Project partners: The Centre for Volunteering, Churches Housing, Domestic Violence NSW, Fams, Homelessness NSW, Local Community Services Association (LCSA), NSW Council of Social Services (NCOSS), Shelter NSW, Y Foundations and Youth Action.