Victoria Aseervatham shares her thoughts about what matters in commissioning and explains how Collaborate and Toby Lowe’s work on commissioning in complexity helped affirm what was an intuitive (but unconventional) approach.

After meeting Toby Lowe and reading A Whole New World I felt like I’d been on a mind spa. It was so affirming. “Finally”, I thought, “that’s me”.

I knew I’d never been a conventional commissioner but I’ve had quite a bit of success over the years in one way and another — from helping people to collaborate and create flexibility, to recognising a gap and winning funding to fill it. The report helped me understand why this has worked. The focus on being human, learning and nurturing the health of the system makes perfect sense, of course, and reinforced the focus I’ve always had on the importance of relationships at all levels (from clients to workers, from workers to managers, from managers to commissioners and so on).

Rough sleeping and multiple disadvantage have so many dimensions but siloed working is too often the norm. When I want to understand an issue better, I focus on building relationships and bringing together knowledge from different parts of the system. I book a big room and invite people to map services, understand gaps and consider creative solutions. In some cases, we work with people who understand multiple issues and the interconnections between these — for example, about brain injury and rough sleeping, gambling and rough sleeping, or autism and rough sleeping. These people can act as a bridge — joining up different valleys of knowledge to help us bring together actors across the system to go on a journey together, with lived experience at the heart.

Once we’ve identified solutions, we divide these into, ‘cost nothing’, ‘cost a bit’, ‘cost a lot’, then run a low cost ‘experiment’. I choose experienced people to run it, and then see what they find out and can achieve. Typically the experiments work well, so the task is then to build on the learning. For this reason the approaches and tools in A Whole New World and Exploring the New World felt familiar — like roadmaps that we’d travelled.

Sometimes people question whether these new ways of approaching commissioning are compatible with procurement codes and regulations. My top tip is to really know your procurement stuff because knowing it really well allows you to find the flex to do things differently — for example, when a waiver is allowed, and brackets of low level funding that only require one quote. The majority of our innovations started small with under £10k ‘test and learn’ pilots. I thoroughly recommend small value pilots as they can take the pressure off when trying new things. Taking a long term view is also important. I’ve been a commissioner for 16 years so I have strong relationships, plus I’m not going away — so I can be patient and am willing to absorb some risk knowing that I have a track record and credibility in this way of working, and support from my managers.

I always recommend A Whole New World and Exploring the New World to all commissioners that I meet. It’s so empowering, encouraging commissioners to embrace vulnerability — you don’t have to ‘know best’ and be in control at all times. It takes off the shackles and the straight jacket in the way commissioners think that they “should be” and promotes an altogether more productive approach that is so much more real and impactful.

When you’re working on complex issues, there’s often a risk of paralysis. But my instinct is to do something, even if you can’t do everything.

If you’d like to learn more about our work, take a look at the toolkits below, or contact me at vaseervatham@westminster.gov.uk

Autism and Homelessness Toolkit
Homelessness and Brain Injury Toolkit