Leadership: Commissioning works when you know what young people need

Garath Symonds
Monday, February 7, 2011

Commissioning is a social model. It is about achieving social outcomes and assigning resources to need, says Garath Symonds.

My service is about improving the lives and outcomes of young people. Commercial models around procurement, outsourcing and competitive tendering might fit and work with other things like waste and highways. But when you are delivering a social outcome it is a different ball game.

At present, Surrey has 35 youth centres that we own and run - and we are under massive financial pressure. Our proposal is to retain their ownership, but we are going to second youth workers to voluntary sector organisations, which will be our "managing agents" that will run the centres. We are also going to give each youth centre the resources to deliver 15 hours of youth work per week and ask our voluntary sector providers to match that and provide another 15 hours for free.

The beauty of this model is that by working together with voluntary sector providers we save massively on management costs, so we can focus on delivering frontline youth work. At the end of the process we will actually be delivering significantly more youth work than we are now.

In the past 12 months, we have consulted with around 8,000 young people about what they want their service to look like. Crucially, we spent six months producing a needs assessment of young people, by analysing all the data on 13- to 19-year-olds to find the key issues for young people. We looked at things like the universal offer; access to information, advice and guidance; vulnerable and minority groups, and from this created a database.

For example, we know there are 1,000 young people not in education, employment or training in our county and the life chances of those young people are not as good as those who are in education or employment. Reducing that number is a need for young people. These are the things we need to commission. With the financial envelope we have, we want to invest in outcomes that are based on quantifiable need and on what young people are saying.

We are going to recruit young people as non-executive directors as we implement the plans. They will be paid £60 a meeting to attend our board, which will be made up of three cabinet members, the project management team and four to six young people. Their job will be to run a young people's reference group for those aged 10 and above, translating our strategy as it develops.

Services tend to get designed around statutes. One of the key statutes in youth work is the 1944 Education Act and it seems to me that says a lot about the youth service in this country. We need to be designing our services around the needs of young people, not out-of-date legislation.

We have got a choice: we could do what we have always done in the past and salami-slice our services, rationalise and downsize in the way local government often has. Or we can change in a way that means we do not have to reduce our ambitions for young people.

Garath Symonds, Assistant director for young people, Surrey County Council


  • Map the needs of young people in your area. Compiling information on local population needs will allow you to produce a set of targeted outcomes
  • Conduct an extensive and meaningful consultation with young people. Providing services that are not valued by young people will lead to services left underused
  • Work in partnership with voluntary organisations. While retaining the overall ownership and responsibility for facilities, work with third-sector partners on specific local issues and consider handing over functions such as management responsibilities
  • Retain powers to commission, decommission and recommission. Put structures in place, such as a team of qualified youth workers, to monitor performance. If any agency does not deliver a quality service, the council must be able to support them to improve. But if it continues to underperform, it should be decommissioned
  • Ensure young people are properly involved in the implementation of the plans. As well as consulting young people, involve them in setting out the proposals and feed back thoughts and issues from their peers

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