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Local authorities have recently been challenged by Government to review their provision of support for young people. Youth services play a key role in young people’s educational and social development and many local authorities are in the process of determining the structures and approaches that will shape delivery for the future

Ofsted’s report ‘An evaluation of approaches to commissioning young peoples services’ identifies some of the difficulties being faced by local authorities and youth organisations. It found that commissioning had developed at a varied pace within the local authority areas visited and alternative approaches were not always being considered.

Inspectors visited 12 local authority areas and met with representatives from national organisations involved in commissioning services for young people, including national charities, independent local voluntary sector providers and infrastructure organisations.

An important issue identified was the confusion that exists between commissioning and procuring.  Commissioning is the process for deciding how to use the total resource available for children, young people and parents and carers in order to improve outcomes in the most efficient, effective, equitable and sustainable way. Provision can be commissioned from within local authorities as well as from external providers, and can be a mix of the two. Procurement is the process of acquiring services.

The report comes at time when local authorities and other organisations are working in a challenging financial climate. Most of the local authorities visited were planning some reductions in staff. These structural changes in staffing had on occasion made it difficult to plan long term and, worryingly, monitoring arrangements took insufficient account of young people’s learning, achievement and progress. The absence of national and regional comparative benchmarks frustrated the attempts of local authorities to measure value for money impact.

However there was evidence of good planning by some of the local authorities visited which promoted improvement. Examples were seen within previously underperforming local authority youth services where a well-managed commissioning approach, over a period, had contributed to improvement, cooperation and variety.

Tower Hamlets showed it was prepared to de-commission services and bring in new providers where performance was not good enough or providing value for money. There are now five main providers: two are registered social landlords and three are secondary schools. These in turn subcontract work to over 80 smaller organisations. A sixth strand of youth work, through the arts and targeted programmes, is provided directly by the local authority. This flexible mixed economy enables the local authority to make the best use of resources and to be responsive to the changing needs of young people.

Young people’s participation in service design, delivery and monitoring featured in all the areas visited. In the most effective examples, young people were given unique opportunities to learn about local democracy, how councils operate and how to represent the views of their peers.

Merton Borough Council held focus groups with young people to identify the services needed. Young people then visited providers who reached the final tendering stage to talk directly to people already using their services and meet the staff. These visits provided a unique insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the different organisations.

The report found that insufficient consideration was being given to engaging alternative providers from the voluntary and community sector, charities, or other arms of the public sector such as social landlords. Poorly informed views among some local authorities and providers about the potential of competitors to provide an improved service remained unchallenged.

It is clear from the survey that there are differing operational models and while different approaches brought different advantages, the best approaches reflected local circumstances and priorities, and took account of existing relationships, available resources and geography.

Among the recommendations within the report is the need for local authorities to take a lead role in creating a shared approach to commissioning. In a time of rapid change and reducing budget it also notes the value in maintaining local networks of practitioners and other local organisations.

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Written by Miriam Rosen   
Thursday, 11 August 2011 09:14

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