A whole new world: funding and commissioning in complexity

A whole new world: funding and commissioning in complexity

Expert opinion

How should organisations which have a desire to help improve people’s lives, and resources to allocate to achieve this goal, manage the distribution of those resources most effectively? This is the shared concern of both charitable funders and public sector commissioners, and is the question at the heart of our new report.

Our starting point is that, in order to do this well, we must embrace the complexity of real life. We are complex individuals, and yet we are regularly found trying to navigate our way around rigid systems which seek to simplify and pigeonhole us. Too often funders and commissioners create and reinforce these rigid systems by insisting that the organisations they support work to predefined targets which cannot hope to respond to the complexity of real challenges.

This report, undertaken by Newcastle University Business School in partnership with Collaborate, delves into the ways in which funders across the country are beginning to realise the importance of recognising complexity; working with it rather than against it. Rather than working to fictional ‘transformations’ which start with a problem, deliver a service and expect a result, we are becoming more flexible when addressing problems; working in a way which is at once more human and more systemic.

Our report highlights three shifts in thinking which underpin the ways in which our working needs to change in order to fully address complexity.


Working in this way assumes that those doing the work of social interventions are intrinsically motivated to do a good job. They do not require ‘incentivising’ to do the right thing. Instead, they need help and support to continuously improve their judgement and practice.

Learning and adaptation

Working in this way assumes that learning is the mechanism to achieve excellent performance and continuous improvement. Learning comes from many sources – from measurement and analysis, and also from reflection on the sense-making and judgements we make every day in situations of uncertainty. This new paradigm views learning as a feedback loop which drives adaptation and improvement in a system.

System health: quality of relationships

Outcomes are created by people’s interaction with whole systems, not by particular interventions or organisations. Funders and commissioners working in this way take some responsibility for the health of a system as a whole, because healthy systems produce better outcomes. They take a system coordination role. They invest in network infrastructure which enables actors in the system to communicate effectively; they invest in building positive, trusting relationships and developing the skills of the people who work in the system.

The report identifies an opportunity to evolve beyond the New Public Management paradigm (NPM). NPM assumes that workers must be incentivized through performance targets to perform well, and therefore requires that metrics be used to measure the performance of people and organisations, as mechanisms to hold them accountable for producing desired outcomes. We know that this approach leads to gaming (people doing activity which makes the data look better, rather than activity which genuinely helps people), and to fragmented services.

This report offers a glimpse of an emerging new approach – funders and commissioners who are beginning to work differently. This is the start of an exploring how we can fund and commission in a way which meets the needs and strengths of real people. If this sounds interesting, we’d love you to join in and help develop this practice.

To read the paper in full, please visit http://wordpress.collaboratei.com/wp-content/uploads/A-Whole-New-World-Funding-Commissioning-in-Complexity.pdf