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ANZSOG influences NSW policy on commissioning and contestability

1 March 2017

News and media


The NSW Government formally launched its policy on commissioning and contestability on the 28th of February. This follows the establishment of a Commissioning and Contestability Unit last year – the first of its kind in the English-speaking world. It is based on the work of ANZSOG staff member Gary L. Sturgess, who holds the NSW Premier’s Chair of Public Service Delivery at the University of New South Wales.

Commissioning is not procurement, Professor Sturgess, explains. It is about a more effective hand-off from policy to delivery:

Commissioning draws on insights from good public sector procurement, but it has much more to say to policymakers about how they authorise and fund public services delivered by public providers.

It is both a lever and a place to stand – it is about authority as much as it is about capability.

When they work well, commissioners are able to challenge policymakers to be clear about their outcomes, to prioritise outcomes given the scarcity of resources (time, money and people), to turn outcomes into measurable performance objectives, to make sure that sufficient resources are allocated to deliver those objectives, and to ensure that front line managers are given sufficient authority to deliver.

They are also responsible for holding delivery agents to account, ensuring that there are proportionate and predictable consequences for success and failure.

Commissioning was first developed in the UK in the early 2000s, but it has since been adopted in the Victorian Commission of Audit 2012); the National Commission of Audit (2014); the Harper Review of competition policy (2015); and the New Zealand Productivity Commission’s review of social services (2015).

Professor Sturgess was a guest lecturer at the UK Commissioning Academy from 2012 to 2015 and has taught a commissioning academy based on his work in Toronto for the past three years.

He describes contestability as ‘benchmarking with consequences’. It is the credible threat of competition rather than actual market-testing or outsourcing:

In order to perform at our best, every one of us needs to believe that there is someone other than us who could do our job. Contestability is about making clear that government has alternatives.

Among the services being reformed through the commissioning and contestability framework is NSW prisons, where one public prison is being market-tested with an in-house bid. At the same time, the rest of the prison estate is being challenged through the establishment of performance standards as well as resource benchmarks based on best practice across the NSW corrections system.