News and Comment

Support for outcomes-based commissioning and the role of the GO Lab

Wednesday 7 December 2016



Outcomes-based commissioning (OBC) has attracted increasing attention as part of Government’s wider reforms to public services, set out in the Cabinet Office’s 2011 white paper. In the first blog of this series, I shared some of the learning and messages we have gleaned from our work with commissioners in this area, specifically in relation to the technical and cultural challenges and the potential for a wider approach towards outcomes that balances service user-defined and system-defined outcomes.

In this second blog, I share some of what commissioners have been telling us in terms of the support they need to enact OBC and also reflect on the implications for the Government Outcomes (GO) Lab. The GO Lab was established through a partnership between the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and the Cabinet Office, as an independent centre of academic excellence for innovative public sector commissioning.

Support and resources

We have found that many commissioners are unaware of the range of support and resources available to support OBC. For example, across the successive cohorts of commissioners we have been working with as part of the Cabinet Office’s Commissioning Academy, we have found very low levels of awareness of things such as ‘rate cards’ and the Cost Benefit Tool for Local Partnerships. In the previous blog of this series, I reported that commissioners often articulate the technical challenges of OBC, which can include pricing outcomes, for instance. Yet resources like rate cards and the Cost Benefit Tool for Local partnerships are key resources in helping commissioners determine outcome pricing.

This is a clear sign that simply making something available does not mean that it will be used. Indeed, potential audiences may not even be aware of the existence of such resources, much less use them.

We must understand what commissioners need in relation to resources and support, and how they prefer to access these. Commissioners we work with describe utility of resources and support in terms of their specificity and bespokeness in relation to intended use. For example, there can be a preference for local data over published national statistics, for example, in relation to pricing outcomes. This desire for specificity has implications for replication and the usefulness of generic resources. There has to be some way of ‘translating’ generic resources and unpacking them for use in specific contexts – a process of ‘making it real’.

This is where we need to understand the importance of peer-to-peer learning and sharing within the commissioning world. Amongst the commissioners we work with, it is evident that ‘word of mouth’ is hugely influential. This peer-to-peer transmission of know-how is important as it helps translate how something should be done in a specific context.

GO Lab

Commissioners have told us that it would be desirable to have a central body responsible for evidence synthesis and dissemination to support better commissioning. This suggests that the GO Lab may have an important role to play. However, there is still a very low level of awareness of the existence of the GO Lab and its role among the commissioners we work with. The GO Lab needs to clarify its remit; ways of working; and strategy for engaging different types of commissioners. It has an urgent task of raising awareness among its intended ‘customer base’. To do so will require working collaboratively with other players to extend reach and meaningful engagement.

While there has been a lot of emphasis on the GO Lab’s role in relation to evidence on ‘what works’, there is another complementary perspective about the need for a hub that looks specifically at what types of commissioning models are appropriate in what circumstances (i.e. in essence a ‘what works centre’ for commissioning as opposed to a ‘what works centre’ for interventions).


With the challenges confronting public services and the attendant need for innovative responses, it is vital that we create spaces for commissioners and others to come together to share experiences and insights into effective ways of commissioning. This requires more than just pushing out information. This reframes the processes away from a simplistic knowledge creation and transfer model, to one that is based on knowledge co-creation.

Dr Chih Hoong Sin, Director, Innovation & Social Investment