Knowledge exchange in health-care commissioning: case studies of the use of commercial, not-for-profit and public sector agencies, 2011-14

Lesley Wye, Emer Brangan, Ailsa M Cameron, John Gabbay, Jonathan Klein, Catherine Pope

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English health-care commissioners from the NHS need information to commission effectively. In the light of new legislation in 2012, new ‘external’ organisations were created such as commissioning support units (CSUs), public health departments moved into local authorities and ‘external’ provider organisations such as commercial and not-for-profit agencies and freelance consultants were encouraged. The aim of this research from 2011 to 2014 was to study knowledge exchange between these external providers and health-care commissioners to learn about knowledge acquisition and transformation, the role of external providers and the benefits of contracts between external providers and health-care commissioners.


Using a case study design, we collected data from eight cases, where commercial and not-for-profit organisations were contracted. We conducted 92 interviews with external providers (n = 36), their clients (n = 47) and others (n = 9), observed 25 training events and meetings and collected various documentation including meeting minutes, reports and websites. Using constant comparison, data were analysed thematically using a coding framework and summaries of cases.


In juggling competing agendas, commissioners pragmatically accessed and used information to build a cohesive, persuasive case to plot a course of action, convince others and justify decisions. Local data often trumped national or research-based information. Conversations and stories were fast, flexible and suited to the continually changing commissioning environment. Academic research evidence was occasionally explicitly sought, but usually came predigested via National Institute of Health and Care Excellence guidance, software tools and general practitioner clinical knowledge. Negative research evidence did not trigger discussions of disinvestment opportunities. Every commissioning organisation studied had its own unique blend of three types of commissioning models: clinical commissioning, integrated health and social care and commercial provider. Different types of information were privileged in each model. Commissioners regularly accessed information through five main conduits: (1) interpersonal relationships; (2) people placement (embedded staff); (3) governance (e.g. Department of Health directives); (4) ‘copy, adapt and paste’ (e.g. best practice elsewhere); and (5) product deployment (e.g. software tools). Interpersonal relationships appeared most crucial in influencing commissioning decisions. In transforming knowledge, commissioners undertook repeated, iterative processes of contextualisation using a local lens and engagement to refine the knowledge and ensure that the ‘right people’ were on board. Knowledge became transformed, reshaped and repackaged in the act of acquisition and through these processes as commissioners manoeuvred knowledge through the system. External providers were contracted for their skills and expertise in project management, forecast modelling, event management, pathway development and software tool development. Trust and usability influenced clients’ views on the usefulness of external providers, for example the motivations of Public Health and CSUs were more trusted, but the usefulness of their output was variable. Among the commercial and not-for-profit agencies in this study, one was not very successful, as the NHS clients thought that the external provider added little of extra value. With another, the benefits were largely still notional and with a third views were largely positive, with some concerns about expense. Analysts often benefited more than those making commissioning decisions.


External providers who maximised their use of the different conduits and produced something of value beyond what was locally available appeared more successful. The long-standing schism between analysts and commissioners blunted the impact of some contracts on commissioners’ decision-making. To capitalise on the expertise of external providers, wherever possible, contracts should include explicit skills development and knowledge transfer components.


The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages176
JournalHealth Services and Delivery Research
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015


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