Commissioning Support Units in the NHS: don’t use the ‘O’ word

supportFrom 1st April this year, NHS England contains 211 Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), supported, to a lesser or greater extent, by 19 Commissioning Support Units (CSUs).  It is these CSUs that could be the focus of IT suppliers’ attention since by 2016 they will all be ‘externalised’, i.e. become independent organisations.   IT suppliers could outsource most or all of the functions of CSUs.  But, beware, the ‘outsource’ word is taboo in the new NHS, hence ‘externalisation’ is preferred.  To be fair, externalisation implies a more diverse model than traditional outsourcing.  For example, a ‘social enterprise’ could provide CSU functions, rather than a mainstream outsourcing company.   There will probably also be opportunities for strategic partnerships and joint ventures.

For a list of the current 19 CSUs, with managing directors email addresses, follow this link.

How Big?

CCG’s will have huge budgets: £65 billion ($100 billion) of the total NHS spend of £95 billion ($146 billion)!  That’s £1,226 per man, woman and child in England.  Of that, just £25 per capita will be spent on ‘management’, and it is anticipated that an average of £9 per capita will be spent commissioning services from CSU’s.  Thus, an average total CSU spend of £477 million ($734 million) per annum.  The range is £5-15 per capita.  Therefore, the maximum opportunity if all CSU functions were outsourced across the whole of the NHS in England would be £795 million ($1.223 billion) per annum.  Contracts will last 18-60 months.  Phew!

What do CSUs do?

CSUs will provide a range of services from business intelligence, procurement support and back-office functions.  Design of health services will also be driven by CSU’s.  Some CCGs will rely heavily on CSUs, others less so.  The full extent of ‘externalised’ services is not yet known and will probably be determined by success and political considerations.

Next steps?

It looks like CSU externalisation is a fantastic opportunity for IT suppliers.  I believe there is the required expertise within the industry to provide an excellent CSU service to NHS England.  It plays to their established strengths and the strategic industry themes of big data and analytics, cyber-security and cloud computing.  So, what needs to be done to press this opportunity?


NHS England

NHS englandNHS England is basically the new name for the ‘NHS’, but recognises that the NHS in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are separate entities and may do things differently.

It’s worth spending a moment just taking in its size.  With 1.7 million employees it ranks 5th in the world’s largest organisations (you can guess the first four!).  Its budget is £95 billion ($146 billion).  There are 8,000 GPs (family doctors) grouped into 211 Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) that purchase services for citizens. GPs are technically not employees of the NHS, but rather independent, contracted practitioners.  The 211 CCGs are supported by 19 Commissioning Support Groups, whose functions include IT services.  The budget for CCGs is £65 billion per annum.

NHS England commissions some services directly, such as specialised services (£11.8 billion), primary care, prison healthcare, and Armed Forces healthcare.

So, in the ‘new’ NHS, pride of place goes to clinical leaders, principally, doctors.  The idea being that they are best placed to know and understand their patients and hence to purchase services on their behalf;  a bit like an insurance broker.

NHS England is governed by various documents that set out what it must do.  These are the ‘laws’ that the executives within the NHS must obey.  The three most relevant ones to IT suppliers are:

Choice and Competition.  Any qualified provider can supply services to the NHS.  Of course, this has always been the case to some extent (think of GPs above!), but the general expectation is that more and more independent organisations will enter the market

Health and Social Care Information Strategy.  “Only with world class information systems will the NHS deliver world class care.” (Jeremy Hunt, Secretary for Health)

Patient Safety.  Electronic systems can improve patient safety by having the right information at the right time at the fingertips of the clinician and patient.

Everything the IT industry does in healthcare, must be framed by the desire to improve patient care.  We all are, or will be, patients at some point in our lives.  We all have first hand experience of illness, or caring for loved ones who are ill.  In short, we have ‘skin in the game’.

NHS mail 2

nhs mail 2At present, the 1.7 million employees of the NHS use multiple email addresses.  Individual hospitals usually have their own in-house email system, individuals may use personal email addresses, and others (around 700,000) use the current national system,, provided by Cable & Wireless.  That national contract is coming to an end in June 2013, although it’s just been extended for at least 12 months.

The Department of Health (DH) considers there is considerable benefit to be gained from having a single NHS mail service that avoids duplication, improves security and saves money.  (Vision)

The new service is ‘starting with a blank sheet of paper’, according to Dr Simon Eccles, Senior Responsible Officer for the project, and a Consultant in Emergency Medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Simon wants his procurement to be an ‘exemplar procurement’, i.e. everyone involved should feel that it was well-handled, and that the ‘public purse’ got a good deal.

The requirements are attached, and the latest version is due out in ‘a week or so’.  The new Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which has taken over the role of the former NHS Connecting for Health agency, says,

‘We will work with Intellect, the UK IT Suppliers Association to gain supplier market input to help develop our thinking but welcome input from suppliers directly.’

Price is very significant.  Most providers were claiming that it would cost £3 per user per month to meet the requirements.  Most suppliers are saying they could do it at £2 per month. The target is £1 per user per month, though this might be challenging for some.  The nearer to £1 the better.  According to estimates, it is expected that 70-75% of the 1.7 million potential users will take up the new email service.  So, the target annual spend would be in the order of £15m ($23m), though it is accepted that it might be more than this.  Moreover, the successful supplier may be able to obtain further government email contracts via the CloudStore mechanism.

As the service will carry Personal Identifiable Data (PID), it needs high levels of security. Confidentiality is always high on the list of doctors’ and patients’ requirements.  At the same time, mobility and the essential sharing of PID amongst healthcare professionals means that a degree of flexibility is needed.  Dr Eccles explains his approach as high levels of security for data storage and transmission, with high levels of end-user responsibility, too.



The principles of ‘externalisation’

back officeThe UK Government is encouraging public services to ‘externalise’ aspects of service provision and support.  ‘Externalisation’ is considered, politically, to be completely different from ‘privatisation’ since, crucially, the ownership of the service remains with the State, which simply funds the service as opposed to providing it.

It may be surprising to some people in the UK that this principle is well-established in the public sector, not least, by the General Practitioners’ contract (General Medical Services); GP’s are not employees of the NHS, rather independent contractors to the NHS.  This fact is often overlooked by those who campaign to ‘save the NHS from privatisation’!


Externalisation, therefore, means that aspects of a public service can be provided by organisations not directly controlled by the State, such as:

  • Commercial companies
  • Voluntary groups
  • Charities
  • Other parts of the public sector not normally involved in a particular sector or area

The scope of externalisation can vary from joint enterprises, through to partial or full outsourcing.

The aim of externalisation is to produce:

‘A vibrant, dynamic and innovative service sector, which provides customer focused support and choice to CCGs and the NHS CB and helps them to go the extra mile, by supporting the local focus on improving outcomes and increasing value (outcomes per healthcare pound spent) on behalf of their population’. 

(Developing commissioning support: Towards service excellence, Feb 2012)

A guiding document regarding externalisation is ‘Building high quality commissioning: What role can external organisations play?’  (Kings fund, July 2010).  It concludes that:

  • Providers of external support add most value when:
    • they are used proactively to help commissioners develop towards a long-term strategic vision of how their organisation should function in the future
    • they bring something new – by introducing new skills, tools and processes or by supporting transformational change in terms of organisational structure and culture.
  • As far as possible use external organisations to support strategic development rather than in response to short-term imperatives [and should have] a vision for how commissioning should function in the future
  • External organisations seem particularly well placed to provide support with the analysis and application of data
  • Use external support to do more than increase capacity to do routine tasks.  The goal should usually be to add something new to develop capabilities or to transform the culture or structures of the organisation. Consider entering into longer-term arrangements to achieve more fundamental change
  • Choose the right model for external support on a case-by-case basis, with reference to the different merits and challenges of consultancy, joint delivery and outsourcing models
  • Avoid using external support for long-term substitution of manpower or to cover vacancies
  • Avoid thinking only in terms of technical fixes or silver bullets – external support can also help with the fundamentals, for example the more relational aspects of commissioning.

NHS England, formerly the NHS Commissioning Board, emphasises that support services:

  • need to be reshaped to enable rapid transition and to aid their future sustainability
  • should aggregate demand
  • should work across cluster boundaries to achieve economies of scale where possible as part of developing viable models of commissioning support
  • must be headed up by good leaders and have an articulated plan for delivery
  • are sensitive to local needs
  • think about partnerships that may radically enhance the offer to commissioners, particularly in helping the system move from input/output management to commissioning for outcomes.

Externalisation in the public sector of the UK offers great opportunity for the IT industry.

Further reading:

British Standard 11000 ‘Collaborative business relationships – a framework specification

Building high quality commissioning: What role can external organisations

play?’  (Kings Fund, July 2010)


qualityIf you look for a definition of ‘quality’ in the management literature, you will get many. Quality, it seems, means different things to different people. In healthcare too, there are lots of different definitions. However, the NHS has produced its own, which is ‘official’, in that it is enshrined in the new Health and Social Care Act 2012:

  ‘The NHS is organising itself around a single definition of quality: care that is effective, safe and provides as positive an experience as possible‘. (National Quality Board, 2012)

The reason this is of interest to me, is that it calls for a new approach for supporting collaboration across the system based on ‘the sharing of information and intelligence through a new network of Quality Surveillance Groups’.

So, the information in IT suppliers’ systems will increasingly be used to produce intelligence for such quality groups. There is, therefore, a clear opportunity for business intelligence and consulting, and also provides the opportunity to highlight how such systems help fulfil quality reporting.


pestle 2Political

There is a new Secretary of State in place, Jeremy Hunt, who appears determined to ‘pick a fight’ with the medical profession over, by-and-large, productivity.  A new contract appears likely.  Remember that GPs are not employees of the NHS, unlike hospital doctors, who are.  Productivity continues to fall in the NHS (or, at best, stagnate).

The new CEO of the NHS, Simon Stevens, has also recently been appointed.  He is perceived as an ‘outsider’ and this is a clear signal to the NHS that large-scale change is required.

Commissioning Support Units (CSU’s) are to be ‘externalised’ by 2016.  The IT industry could play a major role in this large-scale outsourcing activity.

Caldicott 2 emphasises the sharing of patient data1.


Whilst the UK economy is growing relatively strongly, there is a public sector lag.  This means that the recession will continue, or increase, as far as public services are concerned for several years yet.  The only game in town at the moment for NHS Trusts is saving money, i.e. cash-releasing activities that address the bottom line.  Upwards of 30 NHS Trusts are, or very close to being, bankrupt.  This means they will require ‘bailing out’ from central government within 12-18 months.  Mergers will increase, as will sharing services.


The ‘Winter A+E crisis’ is a good example of the vulnerability of the NHS to systemic shocks.  Hospitals desperately need to keep patients away in order to avoid breaching waiting time targets.  At the same time, they lose money if they treat fewer patients.  This ‘catch 22’ situation could be addressed by changing the financial model to reward new pathways of care and reduction in re-admissions, etc.  Such ‘care co-ordination’ is a major theme of  global healthcare strategy, but isn’t mature in the UK context yet.

There is still a need to combine financial, administrative and clinical information across organisations.  This could represent at ‘big data’ opportunity for the IT industry.


Business intelligence is woeful in the NHS.  HSCIC has produced a tool to help Trusts recognise where they are on the journey to a ‘paperless’ NHS’, called the Clinical Digital Maturity Index (CDMI)2.  This will be the metric used to assess progress.  Interoperability is essential, and the IT industry must ensure integration, for example, via the Medical Information Gateway (MIG), as well as meeting all ITK standards, etc.

Simplistically, clinicians must be able to view the patient’s record across organisational and technical boundaries.


How can the IT industry help beleaguered Trusts manage their burdensome regulatory compliance?  Many Foundation Trusts are close to breaching their licenses to operate.  The Keogh Review3 has indentified a dozen or so Trusts requiring ‘special measures’.  How will IT solutions and services help?


The ‘Green’ IT agenda has been adopted by the UK Government.  This includes, political imperatives e.g. QIPP, some of which can only be achieved electronically, others which would be extremely difficult to do without electronic systems.  Telehealth could help, but there is little appetite amongst doctors.

Outsourcing: IT departments in hospitals are often low-status and variable quality.  There is the opportunity for the provision of high-quality, reliable, modern IT facilities, especially in ‘cloud computing’ environment.  The ‘cloud’ could probably host all the NHS’s IT requirements!


  1. Caldicott review: information governance in the health and care system
  2. CDMI
  3. Review into the quality of care and treatment provided by 14 hospital trusts in England: overview report