- Service framework sets out contract terms, with two councils managing key functions on behalf of other authorities
- Initial indications show improved matching and placement stability
Research by the National Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP) on local authority commissioning practice revealed independent and voluntary sector providers preferred framework contract agreements because they created efficiencies for all parties.
The IFA South Central Framework, a regional consortium of 14 local authorities and 52 independent fostering providers set up by Southampton City Council in April 2017, was highlighted in the NAFP survey for its positive partnership work, something respondents said was lacking in some other areas.
South Central's aims are not only to improve outcomes for children in foster placements but also to develop and shape the market to better meet the needs of local authorities.
With an estimated framework budget of around £300m over its five-year lifespan to 2021, the agreement is contract managed by Bournemouth Council.
Chris Pelletier, consortium chair, says development of the approach evolved after the previous regional independent fostering agency (IFA) framework expired.
He says Southampton Council was very clear it wanted to continue working with other local authorities in the region to collaborate on the commissioning of independent foster care.
The consortium is underpinned by a partnership agreement between the 14 authorities which collaborated on the design of the service specification, the contract terms and conditions and the procurement process.
Consortium members are asked to make a proportional contribution to the project management and procurement costs which are undertaken by Southampton Council. They also pay towards the cost of centralised contract management over the life of the framework agreement, a function performed by Bournemouth Council on behalf of the consortium.
"The IFAs benefit from the clarity and operational efficiency that follows from having standardised service specifications, terms and conditions and referral procedures and from having to participate in one rather than 14 separate procurement processes," he says.
A significant benefit for members is that the local authorities in the consortium have stable and transparent prices for independent foster care during the contract term, he adds.
Pelletier explains the 14 authorities benefit financially not only because the average placement price has remained stable but also through not undertaking their own procurement process.
"The input costs that go into producing a framework agreement like this and also the ongoing cost of managing the contract - each local authority is paying about a 14th of the cost - is a key benefit for them," he says.
A further advantage for both purchasers and providers, Pelletier adds, is having Bournemouth as a single point of contact for any contract management issues or queries that may arise.
NAFP chief executive Harvey Gallagher says the contract manager's role sits comfortably between the local authorities and the independent sector.
"What you need is some kind of intermediary who can troubleshoot and understands the challenges on both sides and tries to come up with a mutually satisfactory solution," he explains. "I think that's a particular strength of the model they use."
Sarah Langdale, South Central's contract management strategic lead, says generic data is still being gathered about the framework agreement's impact since launch.
Until that data is collated, she says comparisons on the number of placements and the impact on IFA providers, local authorities and children is hard to quantify.
However, Langdale says the consortium has been successful in fulfilling one of its key objectives: ensuring placement stability and robust matching for young people based on their identified needs.
The number of unplanned placement endings ranged from 0.5 to four per cent per provider; compared with a national average of nine per cent.
"That's really where we are child focused: every young person is different so placing them becomes an individual process based on their needs," she says.