Commissioning public services: the definition and aims matter

What does commissioning mean in the public service space? The definition is broader than many think — and the aim shouldn’t always be to outsource the work.

Over the last few years the term commissioning has moved from being relatively unknown in an Australian context to assume a central role in public service reform processes at state and national levels.

The federal Commission of Audit report recommended the improvement of commissioning within the Australian public service and the development of commissioning expertise within departments and agencies. The 2014-15 federal budget which followed set out the aim of making government as efficient, as effective and as accountable as possible, with commissioning being proposed as one of the levers to achieve this through.

At the state level, the New South Wales government has asserted that strategic commissioning is the “best way” to realise increased competition and innovation in public service provision which can deliver significant benefits. The Victorian and Queensland governments have similarly drunk the commissioning Kool-Aid and have set out steps to underpin reform processes with this approach. Strategic commissioning has become an expectation of public servant competencies, appearing as one of the seven priority areas in the Victorian public sector capability strategy.

Yet, while commissioning has started to appear as a central concept in a range of reform processes, many of us are still unsure precisely what this is and whether it is different from either current practice or previous reform processes. While relatively new in an Australian context, the concept of commissioning has been used in a UK public service context for about 20 years. Despite this, the evidence base is far from clear in terms of what this concept means, the sorts of processes that underpin it and the outcomes that it delivers. A whole industry has emerged to support individuals and organisations in delivering this agenda and navigating the rather murky and complex terrain.

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