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Social Finance UK

Handing (commissioning) power to the people

Three insights from our partnership with the Essex Recovery Foundation on how to involve the community in commissioning.

Photo by Tomasz Woźniak on Unsplash

By Madeline Goldie, Senior Analyst at Social Finance

Commissioning can be perceived as arcane, and characterised by confusing jargon and regulations. However, it’s also one the biggest levers councils have to impact people’s lives, with £23.5 billon spent on services for vulnerable citizens in 2019/20 according to the Local Government Third Party Spend Almanac.

The Essex Recovery Foundation (ERF) seeks to bring down the walls around the bureaucratic world of commissioning by transferring decision-making power over drug and alcohol services from the council to the community.

For the last four years, Social Finance has partnered with ERF to develop an operating model, and build ERF’s vision and profile. Earlier this year, ERF was awarded £367,000 by the National Lottery Community Fund to hire a Director and make our vision a reality.

For power to genuinely shift, the community must be brought in as agenda-setters, not just ‘external stakeholders’ to consult.

ERF has already begun to flex its muscles as an important new player in the Essex recovery landscape. So far we have:

  • Established a committee of ‘experts by experience’ to provide input into policy decisions and co-govern the charity;
  • Informed and shaped the 2021 Essex Drug and Alcohol Strategy;
  • Co-developed the procurement process and helped select the provider for the first major treatment and recovery service that has gone to tender since we were established; and
  • started to build the relationships we need with local commissioners and providers to truly change the way services are delivered.

In this piece, we’ll share three things that are helping ERF to shift the paradigm.

1. Find partners who won’t limit your agenda

People often reflect that engaging the community in policy decisions can feel tokenistic. It’s not uncommon for well-meaning policymakers to consult the community after they’ve already defined the problem and decided how to solve it. This can give the impression that policymakers only want input that will fit into their agenda, and that won’t rock the boat too much.

For power to genuinely shift, the community must be brought in as agenda-setters, not just ‘external stakeholders’ to consult. ERF has sought out and built close relationships with the leaders in the local landscape — like the Essex County Council — who are most open to being challenged on fundamental questions about how the system is designed and how to change it.

2. Draw on community resources respectfully

ERF relies on unpaid experts by experience willing to put their time, stories and energy to work changing the system. Volunteers represent ERF at meetings with local stakeholders and in public forums, review and comment on policy documents, and capture insights from the wider community.

However, our community is varied and we’ve learnt we can’t have the same expectations of everyone. While some members have a lot of time to give, others work full-time, study part-time, or have demanding caring responsibilities. To make sure we capture all voices, not just those who are most available, we constantly revisit our expectations of each other, adapt to the most convenient forms of communication (e.g. Whatsapp), and accept last minute changes to the calendar.

3. Be relentless: change is hard

Getting the ERF to where it is today has been hard. There have been moments when motivation has flagged and success has seemed far off. At times, finding funders has been challenging, key figures have had to move on to other things and Covid has dampened community energy. Without the tenacity of our champions on the Board and in Essex County Council, or the passion of our community members, it would have been easy to give up.

It’s been important to remember that the reason it feels so hard is that our ambitions are so high — we’re aiming for no less than to fundamentally shift the paradigm for delivering local recovery services in Essex and beyond. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

To find out more about the project, please email




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