The Department of Health has invited private sector consultancies to brief NHS commissioning support services at a series of regular national “learning network” events, HSJ has learned.

CSSs are being established by primary care trusts this year to offer support to clinical commissioning groups. They are widely expected to begin forging long term working relationships with private sector firms this spring.

CSSs will be hosted at arm’s length by the NHS Commissioning Board from April 2013. The DH intends for them to become “standalone enterprises” selling support services to CCGs by April 2016.

The monthly learning network sessions allow CSSs to speak to consultancies, with the aim of ensuring the new bodies operate effectively and are financially sustainable. The events bring together CSS leaders and representatives of firms such as Ernst and Young, Capita and UnitedHealth. A similar series of regional events is also taking place in the north of England.

Angela Phillips, commercial director of commissioning support services for the Greater Manchester CSS, said consultants were providing advice and insight into how CSSs could organise themselves. “They’ve come and given us advice without trying to sell us their service,” she said. “But obviously they’re there in the background – if we want anything from them they’re willing to be considered.”

She said her organisation would “absolutely” consider entering into partnerships with private bodies.

Ms Phillips said partnerships with the private sector would enable her CSS to remain small but draw on additional staff at short notice. This method would work best with a long-standing partner, so the CSS would not have to go out to tender every time it needed to scale up.

DH guidance on commissioning support has emphasised the importance of “commercial partnerships”. Meanwhile, a recent DH report on commissioning intelligence highlighted the potential for combining in-house data analysis with “off the shelf commercial tools”.

The report said some of the best existing practice involved combinations of data analysis from the NHS and commercial sectors.

HSJ understands the private sector is more eager to sell services through CSSs than directly to CCGs. A key CSS role will be to pull together support functions for clients from a number of outside organisations.

PCTs are already working with consultants on a more short term basis as they draw up outline CSS business cases. These have to be submitted to strategic health authority clusters by the end of March. Commercial partnerships are likely to be explored in more detail later in the spring.

Atos is working with the Staffordshire PCT cluster, McKinsey is working with North East London, while the Hampshire cluster has hired KPMG to help develop its business case. Capita is providing training to bodies including the Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral cluster, to improve CSSs’ “customer service” skills. These will be vital if they are to establish strong commercial relationships with commissioning groups. Deloitte, meanwhile, is understood to be working with PCT clusters on where existing staff should be placed in the new NHS structure.

CSSs are also likely to be fewer in number than originally thought. An analysis by HSJ last month identified 40 potential CSSs. However, this number is likely to shrink as the most efficient size and range of services is determined. NHS Commissioning Board chief executive Sir David Nicholson said about 24 CSSs were currently operating..

Questions remain over the extent the voluntary sector can be involved in commissioning support. Paul Zollinger-Read, director of commissioning development for the Midlands and East region, said there were some “extremely good voluntary organisations we need to get involved”.

However the scale of CSSs – many of which will span a number of counties – could prove a barrier to local charities getting involved. “CSSs will have to work out how they harness the local voluntary offer,” he said.