The eye of the storm

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 THE NHS Commissioning Board’s role in NHS reform is still widely debated. Pf looks at how it will direct the NHS of the future.

The new NHS Commissioning Board (CB) is unique in three respects. Firstly, it stands to take on more power than any arm’s length body in NHS history. For up to three years at a time, it will be entrusted by the Government to run the NHS and allocate its entire commissioning budget, without regular scrutiny by Parliament.

Secondly, it stands to hand over more power than any arm’s length body in NHS history. Of its annual £80bn
commissioning budget, £60bn will be delegated to the 212 Clinical Commissioning Groups responsible for commissioning local services. While the CB will commission primary care from the CCGs and ensure that they deliver on the NHS Outcomes Framework objectives, it will allow them to devise their own solutions and choose their own partners.

The powers of the SHAs are being delegated ‘upward’ to the CB, while the powers of the PCTs are being delegated ‘downward’ to the CCGs. The widespread concern about a potential gap in responsibility led Sir David Nicholson to say: “The NHS Commissioning Board could turn into the greatest quango in the sky. So it needs to have clinicians at its heart and the powerhouse for change in the system must be the
clinical commissioning groups.”

Andrew Lansley’s letter to the CB’s Chair, Malcolm Grant, in April about the Board’s strategic objectives stresses that its first responsibility is to make a “shift of power from national and regional organisations to CCGs, Health and Wellbeing Boards, local providers and patients.” The CB will not be a monolith within a static system: it will be a facilitator of future NHS transformation. That dynamic role is the third unique
feature of the CB, and the most important.


The DH plan Developing the NHS Commissioning Board (July 2011) outlines the intended structure and functions of the Board. It will have two broad national roles: to commission primary care and specialised services, and to ensure that the entire commissioning system is “cohesive, co-ordinated and efficient”.

Using £20bn of its annual budget, the CB will commission GP services and specialist health areas, including dentistry, maternity, community pharmacy and ophthalmic services. The Board will not govern the CCGs in a traditional way: it will “support” them and “hold them to account” while allowing them “freedom to innovate.” This support includes authorisation, an outcomes framework, guidance tools such as model pathways, and a means of intervening when CCGs are in difficulty.

The CB will host clinical networks to advise on specific areas of care and multi-disciplinary clinical senates to support CCG decision-making. Another key role of the CB is to lead the NHS Outcomes Framework by supporting local clinical improvement, providing “more services outside hospital settings”, improving acute care and the management of long-term conditions, and ensuring that CCGs implement NICE and other national standards.

In addition, the Board will lead patient-centred care by overseeing “the extension of patient choice and the expansion of information available to patients” and promoting both integrated care and innovative self-care.

Finally, it will develop a “medium-term strategy for the NHS” that will combine with the local priorities identified by the Health and Wellbeing Boards to provide a basis for local commissioning plans.


According to the 2011 outline, the CB will work in “partnership” with many other organisations: patient groups, healthcare professionals, healthcare providers, local government, industry and national organisations such as NICE.

The Board’s relationship with suppliers will “support its strategic approach to innovation and development” – in other words, it will play a part in the dynamic evolution of services and provider relationships.

The CB will be organised nationally around the five domains of the NHS Outcomes Framework, with a national lead for each domain. It will also divide its local teams into four ‘commissioning sectors’ reflecting the four existing SHA clusters, each with a sector lead.

The Board will take over functions performed by 8,000 people. It plans to reduce that number to 4,000 – a reflection of its ‘light touch’ approach.


According to Lansley’s letter to Grant, the CB has a responsibility to “contribute to” improved health for “the whole population”, improved care and outcomes “for all patients”, and improved efficiency. Within this context, the Board Authority’s strategic objectives include “transferring power to local organisations” and “establishing the commissioning landscape”. The new NHS will then develop under its own steam, with the clinical networks and senates providing “leadership and insight rather than oversight and compliance”. The authorised CCGs will have the “assumed liberty” to design local services independently.

In addition, Lansley says, the CB will have a “vital leadership role” in enabling the personalisation of care by improving patient choice. This includes the use of personal health budgets. At the provider level, the CB will play a “crucial part” in developing a “level playing field” for competition.

In short, the role of the NHS Commissioning Board is to facilitate the evolution of a rapidly changing healthcare system. These changes will come not from the Board or the DH, but from the decisions of CCGs and their commercial partners.