Talking vs litigation - Compact brokerage predicted to save £500,000 public funds: Guest Blog from Mark Hubbard, Voscur

Mark Hubbard is the Compact Liaison Officer at Voscur, the local support and development agency for the Voluntary and Community Sector in Bristol. Mark has worked at Voscur for over five years and is their lead on commissioning, procurement and social value. Voscur is Compact Voice’s delivery partner for the South West of England.
Recently we have been involved in a complex dispute between a local voluntary organisation and the local authority. While not yet fully resolved, there are some notable aspects of this case that can be shared, which could help others in dispute over contract awards.
Bristol City Council, in its commissioning process for Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence services, awarded a contract to a national organisation (Refuge) in January 2015. That award was challenged in the High Court by the incumbent provider of the contract, Missing Link Housing, a local voluntary organisation. They were challenging the decision because they believed the tender evaluation process had been unfair and inconsistent.
Due to the ongoing nature of the court case, both parties were communicating only through their legal teams and all other dialogue was discouraged. Missing Link approached Voscur to explore an alternative to a protracted and expensive court case.
We subsequently brokered a series of ‘without prejudice’ discussions between representatives of Bristol City Council and Missing Link, made possible by Voscur’s Compact relationships, reputation and longstanding work on commissioning, partnerships and relationships. Those meetings and further discussions led to an alternative process in which Missing Link agreed to ask the court to postpone the case and where elements of the tender evaluation process were repeated. Other specific actions were also agreed, including the appointment of an independent evaluation panel; aspects of the process to be repeated; and timings for appointment and withdrawal of Missing Link’s legal action. 
According to court case documentation, the total legal costs were estimated to be £600,000, to say nothing of the time spent by both parties. With a process of dialogue, enabled by Voscur, the costs of the out-of-court process are estimated to be £100,000. This effectively means that approximately £500,000 of public funds will have been saved by avoiding a costly and damaging court case. While it is true to say that there will be some damage to the relationship between the parties, a dialogue-based solution is arguably far less disruptive than the win-lose that would have resulted from the court case. 
The position of a respected, independent broker appears to have been crucial in this case and has implications for similar disputes elsewhere. The potential of such brokerage in making better use of public and charity funds could be developed further. Indeed, as this case clearly demonstrates, local Compacts can often provide an effective launchpad for these conversations. Looking at this without legal or embattled perspectives, the intervention here served to help two parties have a discussion that led to a better, cheaper process. It’s all about talking and relationships! 
The results of the repeat process are due in May 2016.
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