Editorial: Social value has a long way to go

Changing the mindset of those who commission services is the real challenge for charities and politicians, writes Stephen Cook

It may be difficult for charity bidders to demonstrate the impact of their work in hard figures, writes Stephen Cook
It may be difficult for charity bidders to demonstrate the impact of their work in hard figures, writes Stephen Cook

Last week Third Sector wrote about the progress of the localism agenda and its importance to the voluntary sector; this week it's the turn of social value, the other side of the localism coin. The social value act, introduced 16 months ago, requires commissioners of public services to consider taking such value into account when awarding contracts. Our analysis shows, however, that progress has been patchy.

But what is social value? It includes - according to the website of the local infrastructure body Navca - happiness, wellbeing, health, inclusion and empowerment. All are part of the territory of many charities, voluntary organisations and community groups - and with their local knowledge, they will be well placed to take advantage of the act and stress such aspects of their bids.

They might, for example, undertake to advertise any employment resulting from a contract in publications read by minority communities in a deprived area; or they might stress that they use only low-emission or electric vehicles. Wider non-financial effects and soft outcomes can all count.

But social value is also linked to impact measurement, in the sense that commissioners will want bidders to demonstrate that they can achieve the social outcomes they claim; and the softer the outcome, the harder it can be to provide evidence for it. Even if you find a way to demonstrate that, say, someone unable to work because of depression is suffering less even though they still can't work, what does that count for in a tick-box, yes-or-no world?

There is a long way to go, not least on the political front. There is much cross-party agreement on localism, social value and impact measurement, but that doesn't necessarily mean that any party will promote them purposefully enough to make a difference.

Perhaps the most important task is to change the mindset of those who commission services, who might be so stuck in particular cultures or supplier relationships that even the exhortations of their political masters count for little in practice.

- Read our analysis on social value

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