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Social Value: at the heart of our work

6th March 2015

paper-chain-peopleAs Operations Manager, part of my role is to look at the values and wider benefits that our services bring – not just to our clients, but to the wider community. More recently, this has become known as Social Value, and since the Social Value Act was introduced in 2012, more commissioners are starting to make it a key consideration when procuring services.

When we are commissioned to provide our services, we are generally measured on the number of clients who come through each service. But that doesn’t really reflect the wider picture: what our services are offering, or what people are getting out of using them: the “Social Value”.

So as well as counting the number of people who see, eg, a Health Trainer, or a Pregnancy Outreach Worker, and measuring the obvious outcomes such as who’s stopped smoking, or who’s started breastfeeding, we also measure the Social Value ‘extras’. Things like: who has reported a positive impact on their children’s health; who, as a result of losing weight, feels more confident and may even have found work; who is visiting their GP less because their health condition is now more controlled. We use this information to see where the gaps are, and how we can make changes to fill those gaps.

At Gateway, all of our clients, across all of our services, can access extra help if they need it. Things like our foodbank, our bike hire scheme and our cooking mentors have been set up in response to gaps – situations where we’ve seen an unfulfilled need. These extras offer an obvious direct benefit, but the real social value comes from the indirect, longer term, outcomes. For instance, if we see that someone needs more than a couple of food parcels, we’ll work with them to give them support and one-to-one help with budgeting and finances. This can minimise impact on other services – it might mean they don’t have to claim DWP emergency payments, for example – and gives them resilience. It has a wider social value.

Social Value has always been important to us here at Gateway – one of our core values is that “Everything we do has a positive social impact” – and we’re very pleased to see it’s becoming more important to commissioners too. But, as reflected in Lord Young’s recent review of the Social Value Act, the buy-in seems a little patchy. Different public bodies seem to see “social value” in different ways, and only some measure it directly.

A recent tender application we looked at for a neighbouring local authority allocated a clear five percent of the mark to the social value we could offer. For some, it’s up to forty percent!

Birmingham states that its “implementation of the duties of the Act will be as wide as practicable and the Council will seek to secure social value outcomes from its commissioning activities with all providers, for services, works and goods, and for all contract values”, and those who tender are asked to fill in very detailed documents, including the Birmingham Business Charter for Social Responsibility Action Plan. It’s a good start, but we’d like to see definite indication of how the information will be taken into account, especially when looking at providers.

One of the definitions the Act gives of “Social Value” includes the concept of “more value for money”, but only as part of a bigger picture. The ability to offer more for less money doesn’t necessarily provide social value and could in fact be a barrier for Third Sector organisations. At a recent Social Enterprise event, one example I was given of “social value” was that an organisation had procured bin lorries – they asked for nine, but they received ten, which included one they could use for training. That’s great, but the ability to offer freebies isn’t the sort of added value that smaller organisations can aspire to; most can’t afford to give things away.

It would be good to strengthen the Act to ensure that public bodies can’t ignore the demonstrated wider social value in order to go with the short term cheapest option. To us, the social value doesn’t just come from bringing more people into our services, but by gathering the right information, making astute decisions based on that information, and being constantly adaptable and flexible. Gateway saves money by reducing GP visits, by ensuring that fewer babies are having to engage with social services, by increasing people’s employability, or reducing their social isolation, and by building people’s resilience. By working together to fill gaps and provide interventions, we reach more people, whilst reducing pressure on other services and ensuring that the city’s money goes as far as it possibly can. To us, that’s true social value.

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