Social value - good for nothing?

Hannah Oldfield

Social value – good for nothing? 

Last month’s report from the Adam Smith Institute “The Price of Everything, the Social Value of Nothing” is a blood-pressure-raising/eye-rolling read for anyone with an interest in social value.

Given the source (neoliberal think tank) we probably shouldn’t be surprised that their hot take on social value appears to have been designed primarily to ruffle feathers. There’s little grasp of the reality that those working in related roles, or those dealing with the challenges social value hopes to ease, will see day to day. 


In a report that implies that Britain’s post-Brexit efforts to become a more productive economy are being held hostage by the Social Value Act – a piece of legislation which, it seems to suggest, exists mainly to help civil servants prevent the public from getting the “cheapest” possible deals – there might just be a grain of uncomfortable truth that we could use to move things forwards.

Bear with us.

Obviously there’s plenty here we could pull apart. The implication that the Social Value Act seeks to drive localism is outdated at best. The fury at the Social Value Act’s poor integration is, at its heart, a rant about the historic inefficiencies of public procurement culture at large. Are the cumbersome, complex processes and overspending that have existed for decades really down to one piece of legislation introduced in 2013?

If we got rid of the Social Value Act today, would any of those things go away?

Of course they wouldn’t. 

What is true is that there needs to be a review of social value award criteria, outcomes and obligations. The Social Value Act shouldn’t be a barrier to companies who genuinely want to do things properly (as we discussed here, this isn’t quite working yet and it needs to be addressed). 

We need the Social Value Act to work as well as it possibly can. It needs to enable positive change – slowing things down and making them more expensive is in nobody’s best interest, despite what this report may imply.

It’s true, we need to do better.

That doesn’t mean we should burn the whole thing down.

Reports and opinion pieces like this one are frustrating because they fuel the fire of “social value is too hard, so we shouldn’t bother.” 

It isn’t too hard. In fact it’s often much simpler than it’s made out, by think tanks like this one and by those who wield social value as an impenetrable alchemy that only they have the formula for. With improved processes and better education for organisations – public, private and voluntary and of ALL sizes – about what social value really is, we can get quicker and more effective at this stuff. 

When legislation sets out to find a way to make businesses accountable for looking after people – health and safety is a good example – you’ll get kickback from critics like this. You’ll get employers and employees who begrudge having to make a change. You’ll get unscrupulous organisations trying to game the system who don’t do half of what they claim to. That’s just what happens when you try to get everyone on the same page. It takes some adjusting.

But what you’ll also get is a hell of a lot of people trying to do things better – many of them realising that they had more power to do good than they ever imagined.

In terms of UK legislation, the Social Value Act is still relatively young. We are still working out the best way to do things. I challenge you to find anyone working in the sector who denies that refinements need to be made.

It doesn’t mean legislation like this isn’t needed.

It doesn’t mean we can or should carry on without it.

This report claims that social value and its passionate champions are a “fashionable” whim – if only that were the case. Economic inequality and environmental damage aren’t going anywhere fast, unfortunately. The clock is ticking.

The best we can do, as practitioners, business owners, policymakers, and as decent human beings, is to understand the objectives as well as we can – then work together to get there in the smartest way possible.