Primary care trust managers have warned that poor data is preventing them making progress on world class commissioning.

PCTs told HSJ they felt they had no choice but to commission outside firms for 'social marketing' research on the health needs of their local population. Others said they thought data on services provided locally was too poor in some areas.

But most said they were moving in the right direction on world class commissioning, even though strategic plans, which rely heavily on this data, must be ready for assessment at the end of the year.

The PCT Network has predicted that "only a handful" of PCTs are likely to score above levels one and two out of four on most world class commissioning competencies in their initial assessment.

Department of Health director of commissioning Gary Belfield warned delegates at an HSJ conference last week that trusts "could do better" at improving health long term.

Highlighting PCTs' annual spending of£70bn, equating to£200m a day, Mr Belfield announced that in the first year of world class commissioning, directors from US healthcare firm Kaiser Permanente would sit on review panels judging PCTs' commissioning competence.

He said he expected that while some trusts would find their strategic plans were accepted by the panels or only tweaked slightly, others would be sent back to the drawing board.

He also criticised trusts that were not discussing outcomes at board level, saying: "Can you imagine Tesco not talking about food? That's just crazy - we need to turn that on its head."

He said that over the years, indicators for competencies would be "ratcheted up" to ensure standards in commissioning kept evolving.

Birmingham East and North PCT director of redesign and commissioning Andrew Donald, whose trust has signed a three-year deal with Dr Foster for patient and public involvement work, said: "The things that are going to catch most people out are that they haven't got a coherent strategy, and that they haven't got a very good use of data [in terms of] analysing data, understanding where they are in relation to other similar PCTs and how to use that information in their decision making."

East and North Hertfordshire PCT chair Pam Handley warned data was "critical", adding that PCTs that had not got to grips with it by the time they were assessed would run into problems.

"So much of world class commissioning is about finding out what your local population wants and commissioning it," she said.

Ms Handley said when her trust realised its consultation processes were not reaching the right people, it signed up to a social marketing partnership with the county council.

Tameside and Glossop PCT chief executive Tim Riley said the problem was wider than social marketing data.

"Knowing what you are currently doing is a huge issue," he said. "A lot of PCTs are going to find that quite a challenge if there has not been in all areas an approach to strengthening contract management."

PCT Network director David Stout acknowledged there were problems with quality and speed of activity, performance and outcome data in particular, but said some PCTs had done good work on social marketing, often with external help. He added that national metrics and systems were required to collect some of the data.

Commissioning review panel members

  • Local strategic health authority director

  • Professional executive committee chair or medical director from another primary care trust

  • Director of adult services or director of children's services from another PCT

  • Executive director from an international organisation or another industry (Kaiser Permanente in year one)

  • PCT chief executive from another SHA area