The work of commissioning: A multisite case study of healthcare commissioning in England's NHS
Objective: To examine the work of commissioning care for people with long-term conditions and the factors inhibiting or facilitating commissioners making service change. Design: Multisite mixed methods case study research, combining qualitative analysis of interviews, documents and observation of meetings. Participants: Primary care trust managers and clinicians, general practice-based commissioners, National Health Service trust and foundation trust senior managers and clinicians, voluntary sector and local government representatives. Setting: Three 'commissioning communities' (areas covered by a primary care trust) in England, 2010-2012. Results: Commissioning services for people with long-term conditions was a long drawn-out process involving a range of activities and partners. Only some of the activities undertaken by commissioners, such as assessment of local health needs, coordination of healthcare planning and service specification, appeared in the official 'commissioning cycle' promoted by the Department of Health. Commissioners undertook a significant range of additional activities focused on reviewing and redesigning services and providing support for implementation of new services. These activities often involved partnership working with providers and other stakeholders and appeared to be largely divorced from contracting and financial negotiations. At least for long-term condition services, the time and effort involved in such work appeared to be disproportionate to the anticipated or likely service gains. Commissioners adopting an incremental approach to service change in defined and manageable areas of work appeared to be more successful in terms of delivering planned changes in service delivery than those attempting to bring about wide-scale change across complex systems. Conclusions: Commissioning for long-term condition services challenges the conventional distinction between commissioners and providers with a significant amount of work focused on redesigning services in partnership with providers. Such work is labour-intensive and potentially unsustainable at a time of reduced finances. New clinical commissioning groups will need to determine how best to balance the relational and transactional elements of commissioning.