Westminster must recognise potential of Social Value Act

The UK government’s commitment to the Social Value Act "has been heavy on rhetoric and light on substance". Andrew O'Brien, head of policy and engagement at Charity Finance Group urges central government to do more to raise awareness about the Social Value Act.

My first job after leaving university was working for Chris White MP as his parliamentary researcher and it was an honour and privilege to be able to support him in his efforts to get the Social Value Act passed. During that time, I was able to meet many social enterprises and charities that spoke about the problems with commissioning and how tunnel-vision stopped public bodies from making the right decisions.

The problem is that three years since the act was implemented, I still hear the same things.

It’s great to see the Social Value Awards' nominees and case studies about those areas that have successfully implemented the principles of the legislation and have seen the benefits to their local communities. Organisations such as Social Enterprise UK are to be commended for all the efforts that they have put into spreading knowledge about the act and helping commissioners to get to grips with it. Yet government’s commitment to the act has been heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.

Watching the implementation of the Social Value Act has been a bit like watching people gamely push a broken down car up the road, whilst the strongest person stands at the back with his arms folded shouting words of encouragement.

Despite what you might think, there is still no formal guidance from the Cabinet Office to help commissioners to implement the act – just a procurement note which outlines what the Act means in very loose terms and some useful advice at the back of Lord Young’s review.

The Commissioning Academy – which is a training programme designed to improve public service commissioning practice – has now seen its funding cut completely by central government and has never had any detailed sessions on social value integrated into its delivery. I should know, I have been asked to deliver or write the ‘social value’, element a few times and although I know the problems and best practice, I would never pretend to be an expert commissioner or procurement official. The right support usually isn’t free and requires investment both of time and money.

The Social Value Act should be seen as more than just something to trot out every so often as speech filler

At every event I have gone to on social value I have heard the same message repeatedly from commissioners and other civil servants. “I like the idea of social value, but I don’t know how to implement it in my area, where can I found help?”

It is no surprise therefore that implementation has been lower than hoped (and needed). As Lord Young said in his review: “Despite its growing awareness amongst public bodies, the incorporation of social value in actual procurements appears to be relatively low when considered against the number and value of procurements across the public sector.”

This is where central government should be putting its resources in terms of financial support, expertise and convening power to make a difference.

The Social Value Act, although light on legal demands, did place considerable intellectual demands on public bodies. It has asked them to look again at their strategies and think about whether they are making the right decisions based on an assessment of the complete needs of citizens. Commissioners often ask for models or templates that they can use, but good social value is based on rethinking and developing bespoke solutions to local needs. But there is still a crucial role for central government to play in helping public bodies to get started, to share best practice and to conduct research into the most successful methods.

Charities and social enterprises have pushed several times for the government to fund a Centre for Social Value – similar to the centres for Social Impact Bonds and Social Action – to carry out this work and help drive implementation. This would cost money, but when you consider the billions that could be saved through better commissioning and procurement, it’s a no brainer. 

Now is surely the time for the Cabinet Office to work with public bodies, experts and the sector to develop some formal guidance for implementation of the Act. Lord Young’s review was a good start and covered some of the critical areas, and the procurement note is a good explainer – but this isn’t enough. Social value guidance needs to draw together a disparate set of processes together into a coherent form: How do I make my commission strategy and overall strategy align? How do I find out and assess the needs of service users, who can I work with, what tools are out there? How can I compare ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’ with different benefits outlined by different providers?

Guidance which sought to support commissioners on these questions and other is a low cost way that the government can help improve implementation. Charity Finance Group, SEUK and others would only be happy to help, I’m sure.

Lord Young’s review didn’t recommend expanding the reach of the act for various reasons. I understand them, although I didn’t agree with them. The reasons behind the limitation of the act were varied but essentially boiled down to a) not over burdening commissioners and b) making sure the principles of social value worked before it was expanded.

Lord Young’s review was clear that the act has had a positive impact where used and many of the best examples of social value are not in service delivery (where the act technically applies) but in goods and works (where it doesn’t). Arguably social value is easier in these types of projects then it is in services, because it is harder to build in additional economic, environmental and social benefits in the way that you deliver something on continual basis.

In order to keep momentum going, avoid the risk of a ‘divided’ approach to commissioning and recognise the reality on the ground, the government should expand the act to cover goods, works and services.

Public service transformation is still one of the goals of this government, and without it they will not be able to get anywhere near their deficit reduction goals without compromising the needs of service users. The Social Value Act should be seen as more than just something to trot out every so often as speech filler, but as a key weapon in the fight for better public services.


Photo credit: Paul Hudson