Government's role in human services is shifting away from service provider towards one of service visionary and market architect.
In a commissioning model of service delivery, the government’s role shifts from direct service deliverer, to being responsible for the delivery of outcomes. Services themselves are delivered by other organisations, whether private or public, to achieve the required outcomes.
This represents a considerable change in the role of government, far beyond traditional policy setting and service delivery. Getting it right requires government to develop new knowledge and capabilities to fulfil its new role, otherwise it will likely be unable to improve service outcomes.
In the human services sector, government must focus on six central characteristics that are fundamental to the commissioning model:
The extent and duration of the different roles of government will depend on the maturity of provider markets, the structure of contracting arrangements and the objectives of government.
Governments are likely to have long term responsibilities in three areas:
Responsibility for designing, creating and stewarding the market, on the other hand, are likely to be more time-bound. This changing dynamic will require governments to take a flexible approach and remain agile to support continued change and a ‘safe to fail’ mentality.
Adapting to its new roles and performing them successfully requires government to acquire an expanded set of skills. Even where new roles relate to existing responsibilities, such as service visionary or performance/risk manager, the depth of knowledge required to understand, develop and communicate a vision for a new market over a 5-to-10 year period is of a different magnitude.
Similarly, a performance and risk management approach based on outcomes, rather than a traditional input-based approach, will be a considerable departure for many governments. It can also mean adapting to a new perception of risk, in that while government will not be responsible for directly providing services, it will still be ultimately accountable if things go wrong.
Being market architects and market creators are entirely new roles for most government organisations. It is a considerable challenge to turn the vision into reality; to translate outcomes into market structures and understand where existing government strengths can be used to direct the market. It will require governments to be innovative, to engage in open and transparent conversations with providers, and to work collaboratively – characteristics that government is not traditionally recognised for.
Similarly, being an effective market steward means working flexibly with partners in non-government sectors, not often seen as a strength of the public sector.
Bridging the gap between the skills and knowledge required in the traditional government model, to the skills and knowledge essential for an effective commissioning model, should not be underestimated.
The short-term solution is to bring in consultants, but this is a short-sighted, band-aid measure. Instead, governments need to go beyond the ‘quick fix’ and commit to investing in the time and resources required to embed these skills within their organisations, whether by changing their recruitment models to attract a wider set of candidates with different skills, or by training up their existing teams to perform these new roles.
Perhaps the biggest change required of government, however, is the least tangible one – the cultural change. By its nature, government tends to be risk averse and conservative. For new delivery models to succeed, government needs to embrace the concept of doing things differently, of creating new frameworks, new ways of working and new ways of delivering services. They need to adopt the concept of being prepared to fail, and if they do fail, to fail fast, fail cheaply and move on.