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Within a public sector organisation, commissioning and establishing good financial relationships with third sector organisations (TSOs) involves:

  • people at different levels – from senior officials, acting as Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) of a programme, to staff responsible for programme implementation; and
  • people with different functions – while job titles may vary, and some people may cover more than one function, the following four functions are generally involved:


These are people responsible for working with the organisation’s ‘governors’ to define the goals, values and key processes of policy. ‘Governors’ may be politicians (in a local authority or government department) or Board Members (in a non-departmental public body or NHS Trust).

These people will often make the connections between ‘their’ policy and others. For example, in a local authority they may link their policy into the Sustainable Communities Plan and Local Area Agreement.

The policy manager is often the owner of the outcome of the policy.

Service delivery

These are people responsible for converting policy into services. They may do the actual service delivery or have financial agreements with external bodies that do so on the organisation’s behalf.

The service manager is focused on achieving the best result for the client group. With this often goes a focus on outputs, quality and best use of budgets.


In most public bodies, there is a person or a team of people trained in procurement. They support the commissioning process by providing other managers with professional advice and skills in procuring goods and services.

They may also have expertise or experience in grant making.


Public bodies usually produce some form of guidance which sets out their approach to commissioning. The body’s lawyers will normally have been involved in settling legal issues in respect of this guidance and have given approval to the final version. However, actual commissioning exercises may stretch the legal knowledge of the non-legal staff involved, for example, when considering the extent of the public body’s powers to act in a particular way or commission a particular service. The body’s legal department or advisers will be able to give case-by-case advice.

Your public body may not use these particular terms to describe the functions involved in commissioning. However, you should be able to see how your body organises the work of commissioning on similar lines.

As well as these people within your public body, you will normally engage with a range of external stakeholders. These will include TSOs, who you should involve in ways ranging from consultation over service design, to service delivery, to evaluation, advocacy and campaigning. This involvement of the sector in an active, not just a passive way, is a theme that runs through this guidance.

The four functions identified above – policy, service, procurement and legal – will most likely not be under single line management and may not be together in the same office. Nevertheless, they do work together on commissioning. This way of working may be called a ‘virtual commissioning group’ or similar. It is important that the commissioning group understands, shares, and works according to good commissioning principles and is focused on achieving better outcomes. This will require good and regular communication between the four functions.

Practical example: functions involved in commissioning

A national non-departmental public body (NDPB) is made responsible by its parent government department for improving contact between fathers and their children in separated families. The new policy lands on the desk of the relevant policy manager. Working with stakeholders in the NDPB, the parent department, relevant service organisations, family charities and parents’ groups, she clarifies the purpose of the policy and the outcomes it is seeks to achieve.

The policy manager then transfers the lead to the service manager. The handover is smooth and orderly because of the previous engagement. The service manager quickly establishes that the outcomes will best be delivered by an outside organisation, not the NDPB itself. He works with the legal manager to establish the NDPB’s powers to grant fund and/or procure such services. He also works with service delivery colleagues and colleagues in procurement in the NDPB to understand the provider market.

The NDPB decides to procure the new service. At this point, the procurement manager takes the lead. But she works hand in hand with the service delivery manager to ensure the policy and service intents are translated into the procurement process.

The commissioning process also involves many external stakeholders and people. We consider how TSOs may help you involve these under Assessing needs: Engaging with TSOs.