Name: Rosemary Cowgill.
Job: Joint unit commissioning manager, AGMA and partners.
Qualifications: BA (Hons) Law and Employee Relations; PG Cert in Public Sector Contracting and Commissioning; Certificate in Management Studies; Diploma in Management Studies; and MBA.
Last job: Resources manager for contracts, commissioning and projects, children’s services, Bury council.
First job: Sickness benefit officer, Department of Social Security.
It seems over recent years that if a social services department had predicted budget overspends you could all but guarantee that the costs of out-of-authority placements for looked-after children would be the financial thorn in its side.
It was certainly a common theme among the 10 councils that constitute the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA), and it set up a contracting and commissioning management group to see what could be done collectively. Spending collectively – along with two other authorities – just shy of 160m a year on out-of-authority placements, AGMA decided to tackle the problem head-on and created a central joint commissioning unit.
“Looking across the region there was no consistency around contracting or commissioning,” says Rosemary Cowgill, the joint commissioning unit manager. “There wasn’t even a consistent definition of what an out-of-authority placement was.”
Based in Tameside and supported by the North West Centre of Excellence, the unit was charged with setting up and developing regional contracts, an accreditation process, management information system and provider forums on behalf of 12 councils: Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bolton, Bury, Lancashire, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside and Wigan.
For Cowgill, it was crucial particularly for a small unit to gain the right staff. “Our real strength is the cross-section of people and their wide knowledge base. And they are strong people: nothing is ever, ‘well, it’s always been done that way’. Everything is always argued and debated to find the best way forward,” she says.
As well as Cowgill, the team includes a management information co-ordinator, three accreditation and monitoring officers and an office manager. “My starting point was to get everything documented and passed by the management group so that we had a clear project plan, objectives and vision.”
The contracting and commissioning management group had written draft regional contracts. “I co-ordinated the huge feedback from the consultation process,” says Cowgill. “Having made the necessary amendments the contracts went live last April.”
The accreditation process had also been out for consultation. “When our accreditation and monitoring staff were appointed I wanted to ensure that they had ownership of the process. I worked with them to make sure that the documentation that underpins the work of the project was precise and clear – and they are still developing that work,” says Cowgill.
However, there appeared to be much less feedback from providers about the accreditation process. Says Cowgill: “We set up a provider forum to support purchaser and provider dialogue, understanding and co-operation. At the last meeting 130 providers attended. With their agreement we set up four working groups – one of which would look at the finalising of the accreditation and monitoring process.”
Cowgill agrees that the project has succeeded to a large extent thanks to senior management’s support and commitment. “We’ve been lucky as a project to have that top-down steer from councils’ chief executives,” she says. “So, if we’ve come across any obstacles as you will do in any change management process we have been able to overcome those from the top.”
She cites the example of information-sharing. “We had an agreement that the unit would collect and co-ordinate information on the placement of children – what the needs are, what triggers placements, what placements are available and so on. But then an individual in an authority will say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t share that information – it’s confidential.’ But we can then go back to the management group and if necessary, the chair of the group, Roger Ellis, chief executive of Rochdale, can talk to the relevant chief executive to release the information.”
Also, as with any change process, the rumour mill can turn briskly. “There was a lot of inaccurate speculation, but by being available and going out to talk to people in all partner areas I found that I could overcome those errors early on.”
And if the joint unit continues to thrive by improving quality while reducing costs, other authorities may start rueing the error of their stand-alone ways.