The Social Value Act: Social? Valuable?
The Public Services (Social Value) Act was referred to as “a little gem” by Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the national Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) when it came into effect at the beginning of this year.
Social Enterprise UK defined “social value” as a way of thinking about how scarce resources are allocated and used … and also of looking beyond the monetary price of each individual contract.
“If a pound” they asked, “is spent on the delivery of services, can that same pound be used to also provide a wider benefit to the community?”
Procuring and commissioning for social value should, then – in line with the Act – have been changing the way people look at those two responsibilities over this past year, meaning that now it should be more than just a question of getting the best deal possible, but also of delivering as much benefit to society in the process.
Straightforward enough, you might think, but looking a little closer at the Social Enterprise UK’s guide to the Act itself, we see that there’s a little bit of confusion about it – even at the outset.
Forgive us, please, if the sound of us scratching our heads disturbs you unduly, but under the paragraph headed “To what sort of contracts does it apply”, we read “It applies to all public services contracts”, which sounds reassuring enough until it segues directly into “and those public services contracts with only an element of goods or works.”
To us, that would look very much like one and the same thing. Wouldn’t it?
However, at least they’re clear about what the Act doesn’t apply to, as in public work contracts or public supply (goods) contracts.
What they’re not so clear about, though, is that the Act requires local authorities, before beginning any procurement process, to consider how any public services contract (with or without that element of goods or works) might “improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the relevant area”. Consider? Might?
But there’s no official-type definition of those three forms of “wellbeing”, leaving each open to a certain amount of interpretation, to put it mildly.
And there are loopholes: if the purpose of the commissioning is to reduce costs attached to an existing service … or if consultation would cause a break in provision … then the Act doesn’t apply.
Many commissioners were interviewed over the past summer. Few managed to identify any impact the Act had on their work, and some hadn’t even heard of it.
And that’s not surprising, if the Open Public Services 2013 report is anything to go by: there’s only one single mention of the Act – hidden away on page 92. Of 112.
So – is it really Etherington’s little gem? Or is the Social Value Act just a chunk of iron pyrite, a.k.a. Fool’s Gold?