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This article is part of the supplement: The Limits of Market-based Reforms

Open Access Open Badges Research

Personalized commissioning, public spaces: the limits of the market in English social care services

Catherine Needham

Author affiliations

Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham, UK

Citation and License

BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13(Suppl 1):S5  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-S1-S5

Published: 24 May 2013



The article explores the implications of personal budgets within English social care services, which position the individual as market actor. Rooting the research in the broader personalization agenda, the study looks at the limitations of the market in relation to individual purchase of private goods (e.g. home care), in the pooling of funds to purchase group services and in the provision of public goods such as building-based services.


The article takes a multi-method approach, combining an interpretive focus on the framing of the personal budget-holder by advocates of personalization with national evaluation data, and data from a small survey of day centre workers.


The article identifies three framings of the individual budget-holder articulated by advocates of personalization. The first is that personal budget-holders will be empowered market actors, commissioning the services they need. The second is that budget-holders will pool resources with others to purchase group services in order to broaden the range of options available to them. The third is that services which cannot be disaggregated into individual or group budgets – such as day centres – are not valued by service users. The article looks at the evaluation data on these three claims in turn. It identifies four limitations to the capacity of people to purchase care goods on an individual basis: lack of transparency in allocating budgets, complexity in managing a budget, excessive auditing of spending and lack of responsiveness from the provider market. Pooling of budgets to purchase collective services is found to be underdeveloped, and hampered by the complexity which is a broader limitation on personal budgets. Day centres are found to be closing not in response to commissioning decisions by individual budget-holders but because of decommissioning by local authorities, minimising the scope for individuals to express a preference for this type of care. The survey highlights patterns of day centre closure, rising fees for attendance and reduced eligibility, and the underdevelopment of mechanisms to facilitate commissioning of new collective spaces.


The paper concludes that the transition to personal budgets – in the context of the accompanying financial crisis in local authorities – has led to inadequate attention to the potential for an undersupply of collective and public goods. The loss of day centre provision will be felt by personal budget holders but also by self-funders and people in residential accommodation who may no longer be eligible for, or able to afford, to access shared spaces. Local authorities are actively taking on the role of decommissioners without sufficient responsiveness to how and what individuals want them to commission.