NHS commissioning practice and health system governance: a mixed-methods realistic evaluation

Rod Sheaff, Nigel Charles, Ann Mahon, Naomi Chambers, Verdiana Mordano, Mark Exworthy, Richard Byng, Russell Mannion, Sue Llewellyn

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By 2010 English health policy-makers had concluded that the main NHS commissioners [primary care trusts (PCTs)] did not sufficiently control provider costs and performance. After the 2010 general election, they decided to replace PCTs with general practitioner (GP)-controlled Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). Health-care commissioners have six main media of power for exercising control over providers, which can be used in different combinations (‘modes of commissioning’).

To: elicit the programme theory of NHS commissioning policy and empirically test its assumptions; explain what shaped NHS commissioning structures; examine how far current commissioning practice allowed commissioners to exercise governance over providers; examine how commissioning practices differ in different types of commissioning organisation and for specific care groups; and explain what factors influenced commissioning practice and the relationships between commissioners and providers.

Mixed-methods realistic evaluation, comprising: Leximancer and cognitive frame analyses of policy statements to elicit the programme theory of NHS commissioning policy; exploratory cross-sectional analysis of publicly available managerial data about PCTs; systematic comparison of case studies of commissioning in four English sites – including commissioning for older people at risk of unplanned hospital admission; mental health; public health; and planned orthopaedic surgery – and of English NHS commissioning practice with that of a German sick-fund and an Italian region (Lombardy); action learning sets, to validate the findings and draw out practical implications; and two framework analyses synthesising the findings and testing the programme theory empirically.

In the four English case study sites, CCGs were formed by recycling former commissioning structures, relying on and maintaining the existing GP commissioning leaderships. The stability of distributed commissioning depended on the convergence of commissioners’ interests. Joint NHS and local government commissioning was more co-ordinated at strategic than operational level. NHS providers’ responsiveness to commissioners reflected how far their interests converged, but also providers’ own internal ability to implement agreements. Commissioning for mental health services and to prevent recurrent unplanned hospital readmissions relied more on local ‘micro-commissioning’ (collaborative care pathway design) than on competition. Service commissioning was irrelevant to intersectoral health promotion, but not clinical prevention work. On balance, the possibility of competition did not affect service outcomes in the ways that English NHS commissioning policies assumed. ‘Commodified’ planned orthopaedic surgery most lent itself to provider competition. In all three countries, tariff payments increased provider activity and commissioners’ costs. To contain costs, commissioners bundled tariff payments into blocks, agreed prospective case loads with providers and paid below-tariff rates for additional cases. Managerial performance, negotiated order and discursive control were the predominant media of power used by English, German and Italian commissioners.

Commissioning practice worked in certain respects differently from what NHS commissioning policy assumed. It was often laborious and uncertain. In the four English case study sites financial and ‘real-side’ contract negotiations were partly decoupled, clinician involvement being least on the financial side. Tariff systems weakened commissioners’ capacity to choose providers and control costs. Commissioners adapted the systems to solve this problem. Our findings suggest a need for further research into whether or not differently owned providers (corporate, third sector, public, professional partnership, etc.) respond differently to health-care commissioners and, if so, what specific implications for commissioning practice follow. They also suggest that further work is needed to assess how commissioning practices impact on health system integration when care pathways have to be constructed across multiple providers that must tender competitively for work, perhaps against each other.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3100
Number of pages216
JournalHealth Services and Delivery Research
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2015


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