News and Comment

Making the Public Services (Social Value) Act a reality

Monday 29 April 2013

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In a previous blog written when the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force, I argued that “notions of ‘efficiency’ and ‘value’ are not solely defined by the objective measurement of experts, rather there should be room for negotiation and co-creation with those who pay for, those who deliver, and those who benefit from public services”. I further argued, as others have, that legislation notwithstanding; we really need to monitor what is happening in practice. We all have a responsibility for making sure that this piece of legislation makes a real difference. It is not simply a commissioning conversation but a real opportunity for us to work together, as part of local communities and as wider society, to help ensure our public services continue to generate public and social good despite significant challenges.

The challenges are obvious. Against the context of austerity and public spending cuts, how likely are services to be procured and commissioned by ‘social value’? After all, the full scale of the impact of spending cuts has yet to be felt, as there are more cuts to come. Will those in procurement and commissioning roles be bold in taking decisions that may not be ‘lowest cost’ but may represent ‘social value’ even if the latter may not manifest itself in the short term?

How seriously will the Act be taken, and how will it be enforced and monitored? Of course, the aspiration is for an active embracing of the spirit of the Act rather than a rigid approach to ensuring compliance. Nonetheless, lessons from previous initiatives point to the fact that changing the culture and practice of contracting and commissioning is fraught with difficulties. After all, if the spirit of ‘best value’ reviews has been actively embraced, we would not be needing an additional piece of legislation on ‘social value’. Likewise, the Compact between the government and the voluntary and community sector has not led to sustained improvements in commissioning practice.

Worryingly, research conducted by The Guardian in January 2013 and referenced in a subsequent OPM blog just before the Act came into force, reported that 48% of 300 council staff and strategists with responsibility for driving change in local government admitted that they had not heard of the Act. While similar research has yet to be reported across other areas of public service, it is likely that levels of awareness are low. In fact, one respondent articulated frustration that: “Despite our best efforts to inform the workforce there appears to be a ‘don’t care, it’s going to happen anyway’ attitude”.

There are further concerns that the way the Act has been formulated could mean that smaller providers may still not benefit as technical procurement procedures still place emphasis on risk avoidance and financial security (as evidenced by the size of reserves, etc). Additionally, those going for smaller value contracts may also not benefit from the Act as it applies to public services contracts whose value exceeds the relevant financial thresholds in the EU Directives and Public Contracts Regulations.

Nonetheless, there is emerging and growing evidence of success stories, for example case studies reported by NAVCA and the NCVO. These are to be celebrated and shared more widely. At the same time, we need to recognise that changing the culture and practice of procurement and commissioning requires new skills, which many of the respondents to The Guardian’s research indicated they lacked. There must also be creative spaces for different approaches to emerge and to be tested; where communities of practice come together to bring their skills and resources to bear on making the Act bear fruit. While there may be a desire for making the Act a reality, there may be barriers in terms of knowing how this can be done in specific local contexts. We should create safe spaces for people to share experiences, both from the service commissioning and provision perspectives, so that innovative solutions may emerge in a supportive environment.

It is in this spirit that we formally launched our Valuing Public Services publication on Friday, at a breakfast seminar focusing on how the Act can be translated into action. The publication is available for free download on our website and offers practical ideas about how we measure and demonstrate the value of our public services, based on OPM’s real life experiences of working with a broad range of public organisations, including charities and professional bodies to achieve this.