The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers was recently asked to join a working group to review the National Fostering Contract. This led me to reflect on my experience and knowledge of social care contracting over the past 15 years. Whilst some contracting does work well, I believe that relationships in our sector are sometimes soured due to dissatisfaction over terms and conditions that are be perceived as unreasonable, unworkable and unfair. I am convinced that co-produced contracts could deliver significant efficiencies with the sector being able to avoid the time and resource that is taken up with settling contractual disputes.

This is a sector full of people providing and commissioning services from people, for people. We have to develop positive and trusting relationships with all our colleagues across the sector if we are going to work together to put the right services in place for vulnerable children.

My experience has shown me that significant cultural differences exist across social care organisation. There are providers and commissioners that are distrusting of partners and who have an adversarial and controlling approach from the offset. On the other hand there are some providers and commissioners that have walked in the shoes of their partners and who are determined to ensure all parties feel valued and have equal status. I believe this latter stance is the most effective and the one that will lead to both improved outcomes and efficient spending.

In considering how a contract can genuinely be co-produced, I believe there are golden rules that need to be applied to achieve this.

  • Those sponsoring the creation or review of the contract need to be aware of the realistic resource that will be needed to successfully complete the exercise.
  • A qualified and experienced project manager should be appointed and there should be clarity on the project management approach and on governance arrangements.
  • Ensure equal and broad representation from commissioners and providers. In addition, consider any individuals in the sector with specialist knowledge or expertise that may need to be commissioned for specific advice.
  • Agree a communication strategy from the offset that details who will be responsible for reporting on progress. Ensure that members of the working group, leaders and the wider audience receive the right information and have opportunity to contribute. A web-based platform is preferable to email so that those late in joining the project are able to access all information.
  • Ensure there is a degree of independent facilitation and oversight to enable commissioners and providers to genuinely feel equal throughout the duration of the project. A mediator should be brought in if there are disputes over particular clauses.
  • Make sure both providers and commissioners agree on the structure of the contract. Invest time in agreeing common terminology and format.
  • Agree from the offset as to where the contract will be hosted and the ongoing arrangements for review and management.
  • Consult with commissioners and providers regarding the impact of introducing a contract. Identify the impact on existing arrangements.
  • Consider the arrangements for launching the contract, making sure the right media is used and the timing of the launch enables the sector to respond appropriately.
  • Consider what other common documents are used through the wider contracting process and if any can be developed and adopted as formal appendices to the contract. For example, a common referral form or a common contract monitoring template.
  • Ensure that the contracts are fair, and that they equally acknowledge and refer to the obligations of both parties. Local authorities now have greater powers to delegate their social care functions to independent providers who may in turn commission services from a local authority or other social care organisation. In addition to this, local authorities are increasingly purchasing services from each other. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to create a contract that is acceptable to all parties whether using it as a provider or as a commissioner.
  • Consider there being a definition of ‘value for money’ which takes whole life costing into account.
  • Ensure there is a strong emphasis on partnership working during transitions and a requirement for contractual discussions to take place much earlier when young people are moving on to new services.

Most importantly, social care contracts need to be supported by principles of partnership working and by all stakeholders having equal status. Investing in co-produced contracts will deliver much needed efficiency across the sector. This can only be achieved if we work together, we trust each other and we make an effort to see things from each other’s perspective. Leaders in the children’s social care sector need to highlight the importance of genuine partnerships and trusting relationships. They also need to lead by example.

Marie Tucker has worked in the social care sector for twenty years as a service manager for a charity, local authority commissioner and now as an independent consultant @CICADAServices