Commissioning for social value and voluntary sector organisations: tensions in implementation

Mititelu, Cristina (2021). Commissioning for social value and voluntary sector organisations: tensions in implementation. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis contributes to our understanding of commissioning for social value in England by exploring commissioning as practised by local contracting authorities through the lens of front-line workers’ experiences in both local authorities and voluntary sector organisations.

This study, which sees an emphasis on social value as an extension of the practice of commissioning for outcomes by local contracting authorities, sheds light on the tension between local authority attempts to improve public services on the one hand and the involvement of voluntary sector organisations (VSOs) in the provision of those services on the other. The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012 (SVA) points towards a fundamental change that is taking place in the dominant discourse of public service provision. It places greater emphasis on the capacity of local communities, cementing the involvement of the local service providers in policies and services to improve the state's action within this discourse.

The study uses a qualitative explorative case study methodology, informed by interviews and participatory observation methods, to explore individuals’ practice as situated within specific institutional contexts. Multiple sources of data were combined holistically from individual case studies. This thesis explores the complex lived realities of practice and yields significant insights into front-line workers’ experiences in local contracting authorities and voluntary sector engagement with the commissioning process grounded in providing social value. The thesis questions how front-line workers’ everyday practices regarding commissioning for social value are bound up with and contest institutional practices and how this work connects with issues of understanding the policy, co-creates a shared understanding of the policy, and monitors social value in commissioning contracts.

The study has two empirical dimensions: first, the data gathered from the first phase of interviews, with participants holding a range of institutional roles engaged with the commissioning experience; second, the data gathered from three case studies focused on local contracting authorities from east England, in which participants occupied a range of front-line institutional roles. Data analysis demonstrates how established understandings of policy inform the everyday practices of front-line workers and shape practices within the commissioning system’s institutional contexts. The thesis proposes new ways of commissioning social value to deliver better outcomes for local people and communities. It throws light on some cases efforts to reach beyond routine commissioning practices and carve out an approach that involves ‘working collaboratively with local people and providers to maximise the value created’ in the commissioning process.

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