The role of social value outcomes in commissioning services

William Jabang

A contract culture has become widespread in public services, but the question often asked is: is ‘price’ alone a satisfactory mechanism for deciding what is done and by whom? The very meaning of ‘value’ has been dominated by the notion of price. In many organisational settings, price is seen as the most obvious way of gauging contract performance, as well as the means by which to judge efficiency.

However, many have questioned this approach and successive governments have sought to widen the debate by bringing forward policies that go beyond price as a mechanism for deciding what has to be done and how. This could be best illustrated by the ‘Best Value’ regime that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century and still places a duty upon public services to seek best value – where price alone is seen as restrictive in ensuring that services match with what the public actually wants and needs.

This has brought with it certain difficulties and challenges that many public sector managers and elected members have experienced. However, the search goes on for policies and legislative instruments that help bring the public’s needs and requirements closer to an institutional decision-making mechanism that looks beyond price to ensure that what the public value is in line with what they get. Few citizens take the time to investigate the actual cost (in price terms alone) of contracts that are led by public bodies. Eric Pickles took the lead in expressing his desire to have an ‘army of armchair auditors’ scrutinising the books of public bodies after the 2010 General Election, though little evidence beyond the activity of the Tax Payers’ Alliance exists to support this desire.

Many public service managers will have been exposed to the debate introduced by Mark Moore some years ago on the concept of ‘Public Value’ – an interesting line of thinking that has occupied academics for some years now. The next step in this journey has now been taken. On 31st January 2013, the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force in Engaldn and Wales (although its application to Wales is limited). The Act provides a new statutory requirement for public authorities to consider the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the local area when commissioning or procuring services.

Consideration of social value is generally not promoted in the existing design, process and delivery of procurement. A recent survey carried out by Guardian Professional indicates that many procurement and commissioning staff feel they don’t even have the skills and training needed to carry out social value commissioning and procurement effectively.

Given the relatively short time for which the Act has been in place, it could be argued that it is too early to assess its full impact on procurement design, process and delivery. However, an appraisal of the level of awareness and degree of implementation of the Act by the public and voluntary/community sector could be important, providing a useful pointer to the potential effectiveness of the Act and the outcomes it could deliver.

In view of this, INLOGOV is working together with the Society of Procurement Officers (SOPO), the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) to carry out a survey. The survey aims to:

  1. Examine the awareness and perception of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012
  2. Identify changes (if any) which organisations are making as a result of the Act
  3. Establish whether or not the Act has opened up (or is likely to open up) more contract opportunities for voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations (VCSEs)
  4. Establish whether cost is a deterrent to pursuing social value outcomes.

We would appreciate it if you could provide us with your views by completing one of our survey questionnaires. The survey findings will be published jointly by the four organisations named above. It is the aim of the researching organisations that the information from this survey will help to improve existing practice and will enhance the sharing of knowledge between organisations.

The survey is likely to take approximately 15-20 minutes and all information provided will be held in strict confidence – and will be recorded and stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Please click to complete either the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations questionnaire; or the Public Sector/NHS organisations questionnaire.

Thank you for taking part.

William Jabang is a Doctoral Researcher at INLOGOV. His PhD research is focused on commissioning and procuring social value.

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