Procurement and all the fun of the fair!

We often associate coproduction with activities that are full of creativity and thrills. In the fairground of coproduction developing policies, designing services and public spaces, creating grants programmes and delivering influencing events are the equivalent of those classic, exhilarating attractions such as the Ferris Wheel, the Waltzers, the Dodgems, Chair-o-planes and the ever-colourful Carousel. However, it’s easy for us to overlook or dismiss the potential in different experiences at the fairground. 

Nobody is going on that ride, it can’t be any good.” 

I can’t see inside there, but it’s probably for kids. There’s no way that’ll be exciting enough for us!”  

It’s the same with coproduction. We are often drawn to familiar practice. As a result, there are all kinds of activities that we neglect or ignore when we think about opportunities for coproduction. I’d like to share just one example with you in this blog – procurement.

What words come into your head when you think about procurement? Perhaps you think of words like: complexity; rules; deadlines; pressure; experts; criteria; reading…yes, lots of reading. I’d also like to hazard a guess that only a limited number of you are drawn to words like fun, interesting, creative or energising. 

Many of the assumptions we make about procurement actually influence the way in which we carry out commissioning. They can lead us to think that there is no room for imagination within established and important rules and regulations. They may even lead us to think that the best (and only) people to be involved in the process are experts who understand all of those rules and who we believe will embrace the complexity and the ‘boringness’ of the task at hand.

But what happens when you shake things up and challenge these beliefs? The short answer is that the procurement process becomes more interesting, inspiring and ultimately more robust. 

We’re at an exciting stage in the lifetime of the Trust as we gather evidence of the impact the funding has had and work to ensure that this evidence continues to influence policy and practice long after the Trust ends in March 2022. We have an ambitious evaluation programme and we are committed to involving young people with care experience in evaluation activities, from fieldwork and data analysis to dissemination and influencing.

The commitment to meaningfully involving young people has also been a key feature of our procurement processes and our Advisory Group (each with their own experience of care) have participated in evaluation panels wherever possible. The evaluation of the Trust’s coproduction approach with our Advisory Group has taken this a step further, with the whole procurement process for the evaluation being coproduced alongside advisors. This included:

  • developing the evaluation brief
  • reading proposals, scoring tenders and shortlisting for interviews
  • designing the interview process
  • interviewing bidders and making a final decision on the preferred bidder.

I’ll be honest with you, it’s the best procurement experience I have ever had. Applying coproduction principles had an impact at every stage of the process. We received more creative proposals because of the brief we co-created and the tasks that we set for bidders at the interview.

The Advisory Group pushed us to be more inventive and much clearer in our expectations of bidders. They asked interesting questions and brought more diversity of opinion to every discussion. It’s obvious that they also felt a shared sense of responsibility to represent the Trust, the Advisory Group and young people with care experience more generally, which is something that Trust staff could never replicate.

Most of the work was done by advisors on a voluntary basis, with paid work linked to very specific tasks such as the reading and scoring of tenders.  The evaluation panel took place during a residential weekend with the Advisory Group, and bidders were interviewed on the Saturday. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s something that made a big impression on me. It required flexibility from bidders and sent a strong message that we want to work with an evaluator that shares our values around participation and inclusion.

It was so important for the advisors to be bought into the evaluation from the start, and coproducing the procurement process with them enabled a really smooth transition into the evaluation itself. Not compromising on our values and principles has also facilitated a clear and productive relationship with the evaluators.

“We were given a really good brief and I liked that we got to demo activities rather than just talking about what you plan to do. There was a different balance of power from the start of the interview, and you really got a strong and positive feeling about the culture and values of the Advisory Group and the Trust. The process also sent a clear message to evaluators from the beginning about who you’re accountable to and how you’ll be working with people. It was a powerful and memorable experience meeting the advisors – we were so pleased to be awarded the work but even if that hadn’t been the case I would have taken away that strong impression of meeting those individuals on that day.”  Senior Researcher, Matter of Focus

Sharing learning and influencing practice is central to our work at the Life Changes Trust. So what are the key things I’d like you to absorb from our experience of taking a coproduction approach to procurement? Don’t ignore the unexplored or shy away from an opportunity that might challenge established practice. Procurement will always have rules that need to be followed to ensure a fair and legal process for all bidders.

However, there is plenty of room within those rules for thrill-seekers and coproduction. So, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride!

 

Mhairi Reid, Evidence and Influencing Co-ordinator

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