The recent legislative emphasis on
‘social value’ is a welcome shift in public policy thinking. Through Chris
White MP’s Public Services (Social Value) Act, which came onto the statute book
in February 2012, all public bodies in England and Wales are for the first time
required to consider how the services they commission and procure might improve
the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area. Other guidance
and policy emphases sit alongside this Act, and have now been established for
some time, but it offers a way through which public bodies can be ‘nudged’ to
incorporate social value in both the services the they procure and the services
that they deliver.
as this requirement is, however, the renewed emphasis on social value, much
like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda, has received a mixed reaction, and
to date, little impact. The social value agenda is in danger of producing
short-term and tokenistic solutions to long-term social and economic problems.
‘Contracting in’ social value and establishing a defined list of ‘social
requirements’, as is often its interpretation, could cultivate an overly
bureaucratic ‘tick box’ exercise that does not allow for flexibility and
innovation, and, most importantly, a meaningful form of engagement with the
service users and surrounding community. Quantifiable approaches to its
measurement have also produced narrow understandings of what social value truly
entails. Social value should rather be ‘demonstrated’ through cases,
qualitative research and long-term engagement with all stakeholders involved.
need to press for a far more radical social settlement than this duty implies.
The emphasis on the ‘social’ and the associative has huge potential to deliver
a transformative agenda that calls for a new social foundation upon which our
public and private markets could be based. Far beyond ‘tick box’ exercises, or
the establishment of ‘social requirements’, intermediary institutions can act
as facilitators, enablers and capacity builders for a whole new social economy.
a ResPublica report due to be published this autumn, which explores the role of
housing associations in delivering successful localism, we argue that
intermediaries such as housing associations can play, not only a role in
pressing for good social practice in procurement procedures, but also a key
part in facilitating such a local, social economy. Many housing associations
can act as facilitators, incubators and guarantors to support a whole range of
social initiatives, whether at the early ideas or ‘start-up’ stage, or
throughout the development of a sustainable business model.
associations have also been leaders in weaving social value into their core
business strategies, indicating an emerging shift away from ad hoc community engagement. The housing
association, Plus Dane Group, has recently been re-branded as a ‘Neighbourhood
Investor’, completely re-organising all operations to ensure that this role is
firmly embedded in everything that they do. This has crucially not equated to
bad business. To the contrary, Plus Dane has this year reported a £2M increase
in turnover with only a £400K increase in costs. Through operational savings
elsewhere, £5M has now been freed up to directly invest in the neighbourhoods
it serves. This is where localism becomes the key to the delivery of social
value and vice versa. Marrying the two agendas will safeguard against national,
prescriptive models, or a purely individualistic and ineffectual approach to
greatest importance, therefore, is the need to look ‘beyond the bill’ to the
Government’s broader agenda and Britain’s successful social economy. We must
ensure that social value is woven into the Government’s Open Public Services
initiative, for example, but also to the potential for wider user-led and owned
services to deliver real equitable returns to our most deprived communities.
Reforms to the social care system also offer a unique opportunity to stimulate
new social and asset-based models to public service and personalised care. With
changes to the banking and financial services sectors, and their regulators
also, the Government must consider where the ‘social’ will likely fit in.
new agenda cannot so much be delivered through additional national legislation
– social value itself must be something to emerge within a community rather
than without. Rather, it should manifest itself through local accountability,
self-regulation and through a radical change in culture amongst business
leaders, service providers and their neighbourhoods, and with the added
ambition of the ever emerging social entrepreneurs. Without such a shift to
core and locally invested practice, the agenda is likely to fail our
communities and become yet another ambitious drive swept away by the political
tide. For it to be a success, we must now move beyond social value and toward a
new social economy.
This article has been published in the ResPublica Fringe magazine, a collection of articles and essays from our party conference partners.
Caroline Julian will be
speaking at ’Public Services, Social Value and the Social Economy’, a
series at Labour Party conference: Wednesday 3rd October, 6.00pm –
7.15pm, Manchester Town Hall, and Conservative Party conference: Monday 8th
October, 5.00pm – 6.15pm, the ResPublica Marquee, ICC
Birmingham (secure zone).