Why commissioning is like a unicorn

Commissioning is like a unicorn? (Are your eyes deceiving you?) Although this might sound like a bizarre analogy, Helen Dickinson, director of UNSW Canberra's Centre for Public Service Research, illustrates the surprising ties between the mystical creature and public sector commissioning in this repost from her blog.

Anyone who I have had even the briefest of acquaintance with knows that I have a thing about unicorns.  You will no doubt have seen many of the things people have tweeted me about unicorns and if you are lucky enough to have been in my office you will have seen “unicorn corner”.  I’m not entirely sure where this comes from, although it is pretty difficult not to like a mythical creature that poops rainbows.

Anyway, a little while back I was trying to think of a way to finish an elective subject I taught on the Masters of Public Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne that was all about Commissioning Public Services. The course was an introduction to the topic and most of those who took it had little direct experience of commissioning.  The students included a great mix of different policy areas and countries that they worked in.

As I’ve written about before, commissioning isn’t an easy task and it is one that is difficult to cover comprehensively in a classroom context.  It is an incredibly broad topic area and one that is quite complex and I was finding it difficult to think about how to conclude the course.

So I started to think about what metaphor I could use to sum up how we might usefully think about commissioning.  Something that took us beyond the Emperor’s new clothes analogy which I have used to describe the current policy debate surrounding commissioning.  Then it came to me – commissioning is like a unicorn. For those of you who have stuck with me and not stopped reading in disgust or gone off to contact some sort of welfare professional on my behalf, well done.  As a treat I’ll now explain why I think this is the case.

Unicorns are mythical and majestic creatures that exist mostly in folklore (and now the dearest recesses of the Internet). I don’t know anyone who would readily admit to disliking unicorns – how could you? Many of us, I imagine, would love to wake up and find a unicorn at the foot of our bed – or maybe outside if you happen to live in a particularly small apartment!  In the commerce literature, the term unicorn is used to describe start up businesses that are valued at over $1 billion and include companies such as Uber, Snapchat and Dropbox. So clearly I’m not the only person to think that unicorns are an amazing thing.  Outside of the commerce literature, No one has ever seen a unicorn and there isn’t much evidence that they exist but it doesn’t stop people looking for them or aspiring to be a unicorn. People will go to great lengths to catch a sight of one or to try and become one.

High quality commissioning has a number of similarities with unicorns. The concept of commissioning is a compelling one and policy makers and organisations go to great lengths in search of this mythical approach. While it looks good on paper as an idea, there is not a huge amount of evidence to suggest that examples of high quality commissioning exists in practice.  But that doesn’t stop us putting a whole series of things in place so that we might try and pursue this mythical creature.

One of the cool things about unicorns is that they have a horn.  I suspect that as people search for unicorns there is the potential danger of being stabbed by this (you can see this in action in these great t-shirts – with thanks to Sophie Yates for spotting this). To some extent the search for high quality commissioning is no different and there are any number of tales of injury in its pursuit.

My former office neighbour, the wonderful Sara Bice isn’t just an expert on Responsible Mining, but is also well versed in children’s books.  She introduced me to the book Thelma the unicorn by Aaron Blabey and this sheds some great insight into the idea of chasing the idea of becoming a unicorn.  Thelma is an ordinary pony with a desire to become much more.  She finds a carrot on the ground and ties it to her head.  A truck coming around the corner swerves and sloshes pink paint all over her.  Thelma is now an internationally famous unicorn with many fans who chase her everywhere and non-fans who are mean to her.  Thelma realises that this life isn’t for her so she washes off the paint, takes off the carrot and goes back to her former life.

This is the tricky issue that many embarking on a commissioning approach are faced with: how is it possible to make a reality of a commissioning approach and in the process drive improvement through public service systems and make better use of resources – and not just simply become a horse with a carrot tied to your head?  For sure there are no easy answers to this question.  But, just like unicorns, high quality commissioning might be elusive but for sure it exists out there somewhere.  Just watch out for the horn.