How can helplines navigate the complex commissioning landscape?

Annika Howard

In the first of a series of blog posts we look at the topics from this year’s six Conference seminar sessions.

We were joined by Ruth Robertson, Senior Fellow at The King’s Fund, who delivered a seminar that focussed on NHS Commissioning ‘Making the numbers count: A simple guide to NHS commissioning and the long-term plan’.

What is commissioning?

NHS Commissioning Model

In 2013 there were 211 Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), 191 in 2018 and by 2021 it’s anticipated there will be fewer still as they merge, moving towards a smaller number of larger organisations.

Health and care services can be commissioned by:

  • Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs)
  • Local Authorities
  • NHS England

Different organisations commission different types of services from mental health and community services to public health services and specialist services. This mix of commissioners can result in disjointed patient and service user experiences as well as being difficult to navigate your way through as a potential service provider.

One of the challenges for organisations is the different language uses by ‘health commissioners’ and ‘local authority commissioners’ when they talk about services and the different metrics used for measuring impacts and outcomes.

There is a challenge in bringing commissioning cultures together but, Ruth explains “really good things can happen when the NHS works closely with Local Authorities” so there is a drive towards collaboration and partnership commissioning.

Ruth shared three suggestions for better working relationships with commissioners:

  • Build relationships

For helplines who deliver commissioned services, or would like to, there is a real benefit in doing some work to understand who your most relevant commissioner is. Build a relationship with them, this will help you to understand how they work. It’s also a great way for you to educate them and share your specialist expertise.

Don’t underestimate how difficult it might be to find the right person to talk to – who does what in the commissioning system is changing all the time and organisations are merging.

  • Use their data

If you need data for grant applications or commissioning proposals, Public Health England produces health profiles of your local area, and your Health and Wellbeing Board produces a joint strategic needs assessment – both are great sources of information about health and social care needs in your local areas.

The data can help you to demonstrate how your service is addressing the needs highlighted in the data.

  • Use the language of commissioners

NHS England has a statutory duty (under the Health and Social Care Act (2012)) to conduct an annual assessment of every CCG – they are rated on a four point scale from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’. The NHS Oversight Framework sets out what CCGs are assessed against including measures around prevention and population health – the document details a range of measures – take a look and see if you can link your service to the framework.

Another useful document to get familiar with is your Local System Plan. Read it and pick out ‘buzz words’ that are being used and use them when you talk about your service so you can link your service in with commissioner’s strategies. Publication of these plans has just been delayed but they should be available soon from NHS England or your local CCG, Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) or Integrated Care System (ICS).

Feedback from Helplines Partnership members

“Trying to navigate the NHS commissioning landscape often feels like you are wearing a blindfold and being asked to walk across ever changing sands. It’s hard to know who to talk to about what kind of service, where the money is and what the priorities are. For helplines, which often span both health and social care support, it can be extra tricky trying to evidence outcomes that matter to the particular commissioner you’re trying to persuade to fund your service. Ruth’s session on NHS commissioning and the new long term plan was really insightful.

Yes, it is an ever-changing landscape but we now know that CCGs are being asked to save money and merge and that in some cases the same person may be overseeing commissioning across a number of different geographic areas. So putting some effort in to finding those key people is what I took away from the session”
Sarah MurphyRethink Mental Illness

“The session provided valuable insight into the complexities of NHS Commissioning. Following the session, I plan to become actively involved with the local Health and Wellbeing board, as I’m now aware they now hold the Better Care Fund. This fund can be used for innovative ideas.

We have two CCG funded helplines currently and are tendering for a third, I now understand what we need to include in that bid that will evidence how we can support our local CCG to achieve the NHS Long term plan.”
Tracey WardNottingham Community Housing Association


To help you navigate the complex world of commissioning, The King’s Fund have a whole range of accessible and easy to understand resources around commissioning.
At their central London office, The King's Fund provides a unique and free source of information on health and social care policy and management. Their team of specialist librarians can help with literature searches and information queries online, over the phone or in person.

Thank you to Ruth for hosting a seminar session at the 2019 Helplines Partnership Conference. If you would like to know more about The King’s Fund and their work you can visit their website.

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