-By Maria Arnold
The recent demise of Lifeline is a sad thing, and above all I hope that people who had been receiving their services across the UK do not suffer too much disruption as a result.
EVOC were involved in some of the debate around the decision to award three big contracts to Lifeline in November 2015. The discussion was never specific to Lifeline but rather to the process, one which seemed to place more emphasis on some kinds of risk than others. A decision to competitively tender these services was predicted in advance to disadvantage the three local grassroots providers and indeed it did, they all lost the contract. The process as a whole represented to many people the growing dominance of large charities and the failure to value local links and knowledge, despite moves towards coproduction and locality working.
Competitive tender is touted by many as a science: robust and fair and objective. We are told it is the only way to deliver best value. Critics see the methodology as going too far in a mission to be objective, boiling down such human and nuanced services into neat objective blocks to fit into a matrix, ultimately failing to value the most important things. The ability to write a good essay does not necessarily correlate with the ability to provide the most appropriate and responsive services for vulnerable people. An example is a recent decision to remove part of a tender process which would allow the bidders to talk through the way they would deal with service user scenarios. The reason? It was too subjective and would risk legal challenge.
The collapse of Lifeline seems to reflect mismanagement high up in the charity, and there is no implication that their services in Edinburgh were not well delivered. Yet despite becoming insolvent in March 2017, Lifeline were successful in being awarded a new contract in West Lothian in April, for Assertive Outreach and Criminal Justice Services. How an organisation on the verge of collapse could present itself on paper as the best candidate for the job is bewildering, and does undermine the validity of such a process. If a slick bid can conceal this, what else can be hidden with a carefully constructed essay?
It also undermines the common assumption that big organisations and big contracts are somehow more dependable. Indeed the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership initially committed to only awarding a maximum of two of the four contracts to the same organisation, exactly to mitigate the risk of something like this happening. When it came to it, the decision was taken to award three of the four to Lifeline and now we are paying the price.
Given the timescales involved, there was very little choice about CGL taking over Lifeline’s services. It seemed the only viable option to minimise disruption to service users. But they are an unknown quantity in Edinburgh and the transition must therefore present risks.
EVOC and our partners are in constructive conversations with the City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Government about procurement, and how it can be as flexible and nuanced as it needs to be to deliver the best services for people at the same time as being fair open and transparent. In the COMPACT Voice survey this year procurement was listed as one of the main things organisations need support with.
The end of Lifeline adds fuel to the fire. For me it indicates that in the careful balancing of risks involved in deciding who is best placed to deliver services in Edinburgh we need to be prepared to adjust some of our assumptions quite radically.