South East Wales Improvement Collaborative Children’s Commissioning Programme

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Vulnerable (Looked After) Children
  • General resources
  • Local area early intervention strategies

Basic details

Organisation submitting example

South East Wales Improvement Collaborative (SEWIC)

Local authority/local area:

South East Wales, including the following local authorities:
Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Torfaen, Vale of Glamorgan

The context and rationale

A regional approach to commissioning has transformed the way local authorities in South East Wales commission looked after children’s placements. Commissioning is now collaborative, utilising a consistent, outcomes-focused approach based on a needs and market analysis. The approach aims to both improve outcomes for looked after children and young people and provide better value for money.

Over the last few years, the children’s independent placement sector has grown significantly, with local authorities (LAs) placing greater numbers and a higher proportion of looked after children in independent sector placements. Both the quality of service, and the question of whether LAs are getting value for money, have been increasing concerns. Council budgets have experienced mounting pressure as individual placement costs have risen. In the face of these challenging issues, a team from across the South East Wales region came together to find solutions to improve outcomes, achieve value for money from the independent sector and develop placement choice. A Regional Commissioning Unit has been established through the ten South East Wales LAs working in partnership to achieve these objectives on a regional basis. The Unit is headed by a Regional Commissioning Manager with the remit to identify, develop and implement collaborative opportunities. Within the Unit, there is an Operations Manager, two Commissioning and Contracts Officers plus administrative support. Funding for the Unit is divided between participating LAs on a 50 percent fixed and 50 percent number of looked after children formula.

The practice

A small Regional Commissioning Unit has been established to commission on behalf of the region. The Unit works to a programme of change developed by the Children’s Commissioning Programme Board, which is made up of Heads of Children’s Services and advisors from operational, procurement and commissioning backgrounds. A number of project teams have been established, taking forward work streams relating to Individual Placement Tendering (IPT), Provider Verification, Value for Money, a Framework Agreement and inter-authority provision. We have negotiated on price with providers, and implemented both a single provider verification process, and IPT based on outcomes across the ten LAs to commission placements. Together, we have developed a shared vision of the future and worked collaboratively to achieve it.

Each project team receives project support from the Regional Commissioning Unit. The teams are made up of staff from the participating LAs and supporting organisations. To ensure accountability lies with the LAs, each group is chaired by an LA member of staff. Each group has an agreed project plan, approved by the Programme Board. An additional benefit to participants is the opportunity to network with colleagues from other LAs who are in similar roles. Each group meets regularly, with reporting of progress on a bi-monthly basis to the Programme Board. Further details on the composition and activities of the various teams are available here.

Those involved

Until recently, ten LA Children’s Services departments were involved in the programme of change: Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Torfaen, and Vale of Glamorgan. Collaboration also involved the participation of key stakeholders such as the Children’s Commissioning Support Resource (CCSR), Value Wales, the Welsh Data Unit and the Welsh Purchasing Consortium (WPC). LAs in mid and west Wales have recently agreed to become partners in the Children’s Commissioning Programme. A number of meetings took place with the mid and west Wales directors. Information was shared showing the benefits achieved and outlining a specific business case for extending the partnership. Overlap in the market meant that benefits could be directly extended to this region. All 22 Welsh LAs have engaged in the development of the Framework for Foster Placements now being implemented.

Achievements so far

Management information is produced on a quarterly basis and informs an annual needs and market analysis report. A range of price, outcome and quality indicators are used to measure success, as well as feedback from stakeholders in both public and independent sectors in the quarterly score card.

Organisational and/or cultural change
Collaborative working, both in terms of the number of LAs and the scope of the change programme, has been a key challenge. LAs started in very different places in terms of costs, structures and processes. It has been, and is, challenging to progress as partners together, collaborating in a shared vision to achieve such an ambitious programme of change. How we have approached this challenge is described here.


Since the SEWIC Regional Commissioning Unit has been up and running it has achieved:

• Financial savings through reduced pricing, volume discount rebates, and no annual price variation. Cost savings in the first year exceeded £800,000; 

• Average unit placement costs have reduced. Average unit costs for standard residential placements have reduced in the last year by approximately 15%;

• Engagement with providers on a commercial basis has achieved standard pricing structures, volume and other discounts. All LAs have a schedule of prices for providers;

• All ten LAs have implemented IPT based on outcomes and are using the CCSR to tender for placements. Documents can be shared;

• Practitioner workshops on outcomes have been held across the region, to improve the quality of assessments and care plans and align them with the tendering process;

• Enhancements have been made to CCSR to facilitate the verification and IPT processes and enable the secure electronic exchange of tender and verification documents; 

• Development and launch of new web-based software in partnership with Value Wales to facilitate secure completion of verification documents and automate scoring of non-discretionary elements. Over 90 per cent of our placement providers have been verified. In addition, a system is in place to capture and address concerns that may arise about providers between verifications;

• Regular benchmark reports are being used to develop and inform our commissioning strategy. A needs and market analysis has been completed;

• Inter-authority placement trading documents can be shared;

• Regional Foster Care recruitment campaign:


We have been fortunate to have individuals who have committed to, and driven through, the necessary changes with a positive and strong momentum. At times, this has meant standing alone and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about the right way of doing things and being able to consider and accept radically different ways of working that challenge current structures and processes.

A wide range of stakeholders has needed to maintain a shared understanding of the critical issues, including acceptance of the need to change, addressing high and increasing costs, increasing use of the independent sector, limited placement choice and capacity, and uncertain outcomes for children and young people. This has required acknowledging differing pressures and priorities, has been time-consuming and needed good communication and ongoing negotiation. 

Understanding the market in order to engage with providers in a more commercial and business-like way has provided a sound basis not just for negotiation but also to begin a dialogue and take action to develop and shape the market and improve services. 

Backing at a political and senior level, within LAs, as well as strong messages from national figures, has supported the work we have done in an environment which is increasingly more supportive of collaborative effort.

We have shared our challenges with others, worked with other professions to translate lessons from other sectors and maximise our knowledge and skill base and been able to tap into the BEST from across the region. We have made mistakes along the way and picked ourselves up, resolving to learn and improve together.

Whilst our focus has been on the independent sector, the Programme has exposed the need to improve understanding of our own needs and how public sector provision can be shaped alongside, but distinct from, the independent sector. A tension exists between LAs acting both as commissioners and providers. We are improving our knowledge base about projected placement needs and the most effective way of meeting these needs in the longer term. Our needs analysis and commissioning strategy provide greater business certainty to both the public and independent sectors. 

Commissioning represents one aspect of the solution for LAs to meet their corporate parenting obligations. Looked after children’s placements are a complex problem which requires more than one solution. Commissioning and procurement can reduce unit costs, increase capacity and improve quality. You can view the unit cost template here. To create significant sustainable changes, other strategies need to be considered and acted on alongside commissioning and procurement to:

• reduce numbers of children becoming looked after
• improve assessment and care planning to ensure the right children become looked after
• where appropriate, speed up the throughput of children who are looked after
• increase numbers of looked after children leaving care
• increase placement stability
• consider reconfiguring looked after children’s placements so they are not seen as the option of last resort, but as an intervention which supports families and reduces the need for long term alternative care for vulnerable children.

All participating LAs have contributed to the setting up and funding of the Regional Commissioning Unit on a 50 per cent fixed and 50 per cent variable basis. Cashable savings and cost avoidance savings reduce the direct costs of the regional unit by allowing the project groups to claim that it is self-funding.

Potential savings and benefits

The Regional Commissioning Unit will implement a collaborative All-Wales Framework Agreement for LAC Foster Placements and a collaborative Framework Agreement for Residential Placements across 15 Welsh authorities in 2012. 
Standardising specifications will allow the 22 Welsh LAs to aggregate demand and compare unit costs. Lower prices should result either from economies of scale, or from using pricing information to challenge suppliers. We anticipate that this collaboration will result in fewer tendering exercises, leading to lower administrative costs as the burden is shared amongst the 15 LAs involved. The purposes of this regional framework will be to improve outcomes for children in foster and residential care, to significantly reduce the expensive practice of ‘spot purchasing’ of foster care placements through Independent Foster Care Agencies (IFAs) and residential providers, to improve the stability of our placements and to bring greater choice to the market place.

Key leadership behaviour characteristics

The following core behaviours have been identified as part of successful elements of leadership (see National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services/C4EO (2011). Resourceful leadership: how directors of children’s services improve outcomes for children. Full report. Nottingham: NCSL see 

South East Wales identified the following behaviours as key to the transformation of their service:

openness to possibilities: openness to new ways of delivering a service on a regional basis and potential to transform services

the ability to collaborate: collaboration of 10 local authorities at senior and operational levels

demonstrating a belief in team and people: project teams utilising the skills and expertise of staff to identify solutions and deliver change

personal resilience and tenacity: overcoming barriers and challenging taken for granted assumptions about the way commissioning should be done

the ability to create and sustain commitment across a system: gaining commitment of stakeholders at all levels across both local authorities and national organisations like Value Wales, Data Unit and WLGA.

focusing on results: an outcomes focus provided clear objectives to achieve in terms of better outcomes for looked after children, value for money and development of sufficient placement choice.

the ability to simplify: a regional approach has enabled a simpler, more rational approach which is consistent across the region, benefiting both local authority commissioners and practitioners and providers

the ability to learn continuously: as a programme of transformational change we have continuously both learnt from mistakes and found ways to do things better. This has enabled us to continue to develop our collaborative approach, which we are now doing with the implementation of an All Wales Framework for foster placements.

Contact Us

t. 020 7833 6825

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