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The Public Services (Social Value) Act: one year on

Friday 31 January 2014


The Public Services (Social Value) Act: one year on

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 has now been in force for a year. To mark the first anniversary of the Act, the Cabinet Office will be publishing a progress report, including next steps. The level of interest in making the provisions of the Act a reality, particular from the voluntary and community sector, has meant that a number of other organisations have been monitoring progress. The findings make for interesting reading and raise a number of questions.


It is fair to say that commissioners are now more aware of the Act, and many have taken steps to implement it. On the eve of the Act coming into force, research conducted by The Guardian reported low levels of awareness amongst those with responsibility for driving change in local government, and a worrying ‘don’t care, it’s going to happen anyway’ attitude. One year on, a survey conducted by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) finds that, broadly speaking, commissioners are confident about using the Act. Fewer than one-third of the 48 commissioners who responded to the survey said that there was a lack of guidance, while more than three-quarters indicated that their organisation had issued tenders using social value criteria.

A separate study by Social Enterprise Mark, involving 20 commissioners, reported that 20% of respondents indicated there had been a change in the tendering process since January 2013 to include reference to social value. Of those that indicated no change since January 2013, 40% stated that it was already included within tenders.

While neither study claims to be representative, the messages seem to indicate that commissioners feel that they have, by and large, either already have been including considerations of social value in tenders prior to the Act or have done so since the Act come into force.


In contrast to the findings reported for commissioners, both studies found that providers generally perceive themselves as being less clear about the Act in practice. For example, more than half of the 47 providers in the SEUK survey felt that they needed more guidance on the Act. SEUK recommended better coordination of information for providers.

Certainly my previous blog on what providers can do to take advantage of the Act seemed to resonate with the concerns of providers.

While commissioners seem to think that they have been enacting key provisions of the Act, the provider experience can be somewhat different. The Social Enterprise Mark study, for example, reported that 68% of their 34 providers indicated they had tendered for public contracts since January 2013. Of those, only 9% said the process was different from previous tenders.

Making sense of what has been happening

SEUK indicated that said the results of the survey relating to commissioners were more positive than they had expected, based on anecdotal evidence. They noted that survey respondents were likely to be self-selecting, with a bias towards those commissioners who are more supportive of the Act.

What is perhaps of greater interest is the fact that evidence based on self-reporting and self-perception may only tell part of the story. Just because I think I’m doing something well does not always mean that others similarly perceive that I’m doing it well. The Social Enterprise Mark study, for example, indicated that very few providers seem to felt any difference in tendering processes and requirements. It is also telling that providers called for greater clarity on what buyers define as social value including some consistency and standardisation of approach, provision of training for commissioning staff, clarity on best value versus social value, and for its legal requirement to be enforced and upheld.

What seems to be clear is that the success of the Act will not stem from either commissioners or providers acting unilaterally, even if they are confident that what they are doing is in the pursuit of social value. Both sides should be aware that the Act includes a provision for public bodies to consider consultation when seeking to define what social value could be.

Given that the Act explicitly acknowledges that perceptions and definitions of social value are not fixed, and must be negotiated by local stakeholders, this provision is key to securing a successful future for the Act. It is not simply about what commissioners think social value is, and subsequently including their definition of social value into tenders. Neither is it about what providers think social value is, and expecting commissioners to issue contracts in line with these definitions. Instead, it must always involve both sides working together, while engaging with their wider public and service users, to jointly give meaning to social value in localities. It is only through co-production that social value comes to life.

OPM has published an edited volume, Valuing Public Services, that offers practical ideas about how we measure and demonstrate the value of our public services, based on our real life experiences of working with a broad range of public organisations, including charities and professional bodies.