Social value that can transform places

henrykippinHow will the 2012 public services (social value) act change the shape of local public services? How quickly and effectively can local authorities design, measure and incorporate social value considerations into their commissioning and procurement processes? What will be the implications for local public service providers?

Organisations across the public, private and social sectors are deliberating over these questions as we speak, adapting to a new environment in which they must increasingly articulate value beyond the financial bottom line, and look beyond the boundaries of what they currently do.

These deliberations will come more naturally to some than to others, but as a new report published by Collaborate and the Transition Institute argues, acting on social value should feel like a challenge to everyone. This is because, at root, the very idea requires us to look outside of the service lens, beyond our current roles and responsibilities, and ask whether we truly understand the lives of citizens and communities. To borrow from economist Amartya Sen, this is not only about meeting need or satisfying delivery criteria, but enabling people to ‘lead lives they have reason to value’.

Real insight into the lives, needs, wants and aspirations of communities should catalyse new ways of working that fundamentally change the role and purpose of local authorities and public service providers. For councils such as Lambeth – profiled in the report – the journey from departmental-based service delivery to outcome-based ‘co-operative’ commissioning will be a potentially long and difficult one.  Other local authorities are taking different paths.  One leading expert told us of a ‘quiet revolution’ taking hold in different parts of the country.

At the heart of any approach should be a responsibility to align public goods – and thus the activities of public agencies – around the integrated needs, assets and values of citizens and communities.  At every stage of the commissioning process – from outcome definition through to procurement, delivery and measurement – the involvement of the community is key, and a holistic framework must guide the process.

We need better relationships across the public, private and social sectors to improve social outcomes, and social value commissioning offers a route to making this happen.  In a context in which public service reform is frequently reduced to the politics of efficiency and fiscal correction, we need to sustain the argument that long-term gains are to be found in supporting citizens to be independent, productive and socially mobile. We must get better at sharing the risks and rewards that this implies, and get better at leading across the sectors to improve peoples lives.  The right framing of social value commissioning can support these goals – provided policymakers and practitioners are mindful of three key issues:

  • Relationships: How can a commitment to vigorous engagement and ‘community-led’ commissioning be enacted consistently and meaningfully in practice?  What mechanisms can be used to really listen to local people and build co-productive relationships; how might these differ for communities of interest and place; and how can we make sure that existing identities, groups and social capital are respected?
  • Leadership:  To what extent does the social value agenda stand or fall by the leading role played by the local authority?  Many would argue that sustainable local change requires distributed ownership – both across public services, and through civil society and the business sector.  In a context of deepening austerity, do we, therefore, need more thinking about how councils can shift to catalysing others and ‘leading from behind’ on this agenda?
  • Governance: We know that shifting from a service to an investment model poses a massive challenge for existing financial and governance arrangements.  Lambeth are among a number of councils taking on this challenge. They must all confront the reality of vested interest, organisational path dependency, rising social demand, and a local public services ecosystem that is not well set up to integrate budgets, share decision-making and deliver collaborative interventions.

In four practitioner-led seminars held during 2013 we heard from local commissioners, procurement officers, councillors and public service leaders who are working through these issues, using social value as the spur for a different way of working in their localities.

The barriers they face are real: technical questions about the relationship between social value commissioning and (changing) EU procurement practice; cultural barriers and the legacy of service and professional silos; and the difficulty of transformation in a politically volatile and financially constrained environment.  These are huge issues.  But the lessons shared by those working through them will help shape the next generation of public services and the future of our localities.


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Dave Carr
Dave Carr
10 years ago

This is a very thought provoking piece. In particular your three key issues of relationships, leadership and governance are well identified and something that we are working on in the Wakefield District as part of the Nova Assembly campaign on social value.

As the local infrastructure organisation supporting the voluntary and community sector in Wakefield District we work hard to ensure positive and effective relationships with our statutory partners. When it comes to leadership though we don’t want ‘leading from behind’, but instead we want to be leading together in both the strategic and operational spheres of our work. Foe me the biggest challenge we face will be getting agreement on how we actually demonstrate social value in practical terms without it turning into a time-consuming and bureaucratic exercise in social accounting.

Rhona Bywater
Rhona Bywater
10 years ago

Really insightful piece on social value. I agree with Dave’s point about avoiding the pitfall of this becoming another ‘industry’ – hitting targets but missing the point (aka best value et al). Lets hope the ‘quiet revolution’ gains momentum and we do see real change . Austerity may be the driver, but it does feel like the time has come to re-draw relationships between citizens and state – interesting times indeed.

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