In the recent Fostering Stocktake report, the chapter on commissioning made reference to price reductions being realised if local authorities were to share their framework contracts with one another. I think there was a hint that some local authorities are getting a ‘better deal’ than others from their fostering providers. Of course, it’s legitimate to explore new ways of making savings in such tough financial times, but variations on this idea have been around for some time. Prices do vary across local authorities and commissioning consortia, it's true. But then there are varying specifications, and different terms and conditions, that present different levels of service, challenge and risk to fostering providers. This local variation is driven by local authorities based on what they believe their local need to be. It would not be possible, or sensible, to make a price comparison across local authorities without taking these differences into account. However, I doubt if there is sufficient sophistication in current data collection to enable such an exercise to meaningfully take place.
More significant in cost saving terms is the bureaucracy caused by commissioning arrangements that duplicate, overlap and request data that is not used for any obvious purpose. For example, one medium-sized fostering provider may have to tender for and subsequently be monitored by four or five commissioning consortia, perhaps six local authorities commissioning on their own, a range of spot purchase contracts across all of these local authorities, and referrals sent to them ad hoc by all of the local authorities individually (this can be 1000s each month), many of the referrals classified as 'emergencies'. This is a vast inefficiency that needs to be addressed. Savings could be made if commissioning were be stripped of inefficient procurement processes, perhaps with entry to a pre-qualification list being light touch and based on legal compliance, financial sustainability and Ofsted inspection judgements. All fostering services in a given locality, including in-house services, should then be considered when a child need a fostering placement, and that placement then made on the basis of an individual child's needs. Local authorities should review internal arrangements for information sharing so that monitoring is driven by information already collected through social work visits, foster carer reports, care planning and annual reviews. The latter may pose the biggest challenge of all - joining up social work, commissioning and fostering provision - but surely it makes sense?