Some musings on Social Value

Originally from another blog of mine – wasn’t convinced of its resilience relevance but have been convinced otherwise….

I was at a public sector social value seminar this week and all I can say is that if any of you follow me on twitter, it’ll be painfully obvious how I felt about it

SV tweet

This is invariably my reaction to these sorts of events unfortunately and I while I accept my inherent grumpiness may provide an unfairly caustic hue to my criticism, I still think my point is probably valid – why is it that social value conversations tend to be so boring? I’m not certain of the answer, but I’ll pose a theory and as always I’m interested in your reflections.


A recurring question about social value is how does one define it? I wonder if this is where many of us start going wrong.

Value is in my mind inherently subjective. At times I’ve used the rather basic example of a glass of water. This glass has a multitude of values depending on the circumstance; if I’m thirsty and it is the only water for miles then it is hugely valuable to me. If I’m not thirsty, and I have access to a nice bottle of Malbec… well… not so much value. But if I’ve just downed that bottle and now I’m feeling a little woozy the water’s value shoots up again. So value isn’t just subjective, it’s constantly evolving. The challenge isn’t so much to define the value, but to be agile enough to keep up with its constantly developing status. Complex stuff eh, and that’s just for a glass of water!

When you apply this to wider social value, it’s pretty obvious why we keep tying ourselves up in knots. Not only is there a multitude of different things that are “valued” by society, or a local community, but said value is also constantly changing, sometimes within a few hours!

This isn’t an easy one to solve, but I wonder if we might all do ourselves a favour by building our public sector social value policies/guides/strategies etc around one question “If we could improve one thing in our local area/field of interest that would make a big difference to people’s lives, what would it be?”

Accept that society will also value other things to a greater or lesser degree, but move on from that quickly and focus on one area of value. This without doubt requires collaboration with local people or people with a vested interest, but it also requires trusted leadership to hear all the different suggestions but decide which one to focus on.


Ok, so we’ve take the bold decision to narrow down our value parameters to a single key issue, let’s say ensuring no resident in our local area feels isolated. What next? A toolkit? A guidance document? A public launch with appropriately relevant local dignitaries? Well, oddly I’ll not be too cynical about all that – they’re all useful parts of the bigger puzzle.

What I do think is missing from a lot of social value approaches I’ve seen is a big dollop of good old fashioned inspiration. There is usually a lot of guidance on how to do it, and quite a bit of narrative on why it is a good thing, but not so much on the potential of what can be achieved. I think this comes back to the first challenge around definition – when social value can be everything, it invariably feels like it will end up being nothing as it is incredibly difficult to visualise what can be achieved.

Would it be different if we built aims around very simple, but ambitious goals that put the scale of social value in its proper perspective? For example:

SuchnSuch Council spends £400m per annum in commissioning services from third parties. SuchnSuch Council is also committed to making sure no resident in the borough feels isolated, because we know isolation is a killer. For the next x years, every single commissioning exercise will have to demonstrate how it will contribute to achieving this goal and in turn improving the wellbeing and life chances of our residents”

Or in more simple language, for this period social value for our council means every single £ of our £400m annual commissioning spend will contribute to reducing isolation. From here you can do fancy calculations on the potential social return on investment to show how one’s spend is levering value, but I think the more powerful implication of this is the huge levels of new resource that can be levered around this issue, and the potential impact on what is normally seen as an intransigent issue. Just imagine the skills resources and expertise from the providers of every environment services contract, every schools contract, every culture/leisure contract, every regeneration contract (not to mention the adult social care budgets) all dedicated to one clear mission.

I’m not that naïve on this, I know it is more complicated than just pooling everything into one place and hoping it works itself out. There’d be a huge amount of hard work. But you know what, I’d feel confident knowing whether my local council had achieved additional social value from its expenditure in a scenario like this rather than piecemeal community contributions that might not actually have that much of an impact. And I’m willing to wager that a lot of those potential providers would also be excited about being part of that challenge (whether local social enterprises given a competitive edge or larger businesses levering their infrastructures), and hopefully solving it.

And if it was successful, I don’t think we’d be talking so much about unlocking more social value, but rather how collectively we’d have started valuing the social to a much greater extent.

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