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National Social Value Conference 2018: Going upstream

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

PSE’s Daniel Broadley reflects on the key messages to take away from this year’s National Social Value Conference, which took place on 20-21 November in Manchester.

If you’re born into the bottom 10% of society in terms of poverty, to reach average earnings it wouldn’t take six years, or even six decades, but six generations. Attendees at this year’s National Social Value Conference were in shock upon hearing this worrying figure from TUC North West’s Lynn Collins, but it did set up an important point that reminded us of what social value is all about: improving people’s lives.

“There’s a big breakdown of trust in business and politics and big institutions; the idea that you can use your mainstream business model to do good is dead simple, but potentially transformational,” said Hazel Blears, former government minister and champion of the Social Value Act (SVA). Hers was a sentiment echoed throughout the two days of the event by speakers and attendees alike – especially by Social Value UK CEO Ben Carpenter.

“There are huge levels of inequality throughout society,” Carpenter noted, citing the recent UN report on poverty in the UK. “If we want to create change through social value, we need to recognise that there are massive power imbalances in our society. If we are to make this movement of social value effective, we need to shift power.” 

A clear business case

The idea that doing good is good business is so simple, it almost seems like common sense. Small changes to the way we procure services and collect data has enormous potential to improve people’s lives.

But one of social value’s misconceptions, according to Social Value Portal CEO Guy Battle, is that it leads to increased cost, which he claims is simply not the case: it actually carries a strong business case for councils to save money and help companies win work.

“There’s a clear business case for social value, especially for local authorities,” Guy told PSE during the conference. “If you invest in it and deliver against it, you reduce your costs. But more importantly, you add value, so when you reach out to businesses and ask them to do more, the public pound goes further.

“For the private sector, if you’re not embracing it, you’re going to lose work. There’s enough businesses now seeing it as a competitive advantage. If you haven’t embedded it into how you’re bidding for work, then you’re going to lose work. Also, importantly, it helps retain staff as it helps bring a sense of purpose to an organisation above and beyond the day job. Social value is a culture, and makes sense for business.”

This means that social value is crucial to partnerships between the public and private sectors. They are, as Guy exemplified, two sides of the same coin, with the coin representing communities. “There’s no way we can deliver for the community unless public is reaching out to private and vice versa. This is not a one-way bridge, it’s a two-way bridge. Working in partnership and collaborating is key.”

And it’s already happening. Social value now seems to be a strategic issue, with key decision-makers across all sectors now embedding it in the boardroom – which wasn’t the case two or three years ago.

Leading the way

Manchester was a fit setting for the conference, with the region’s combined authority adopting its own Social Value Policy back in 2014, which focused on how social value can drive the region’s devolution agenda.

Social value is now considered as part of the pre-procurement process by budget decision-makers and commissioners – although it is not delivered in isolation solely through procurement, according to Peter Schofield, Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s collaborative procurement programme manager.

But Greater Manchester isn’t the only one making waves with social value. Darren Knowd, chief procurement officer at Durham County Council, told PSE that his council and the North East Procurement Organisation have now used the National Themes Outcomes and Measures (TOMs) social value framework – officially unveiled at last year’s conference – across 10 projects.

“Fundamentally, social value is what councils do,” he explained. “If you look at the core corporate objective of a council, it’s about the social, economic, and environmental wellbeing of your locality. So even before the SVA, we had a mandate to do this.”

Measurement management

One of the key themes of the conference was the different ways in which social value can be measured and managed. Darren noted that the launch of the TOMs framework last year was the biggest change he’d seen, as previously it had been “difficult for buyers and suppliers to understand what social value means.”

The TOMs, on the other hand, clearly explain what it means, put financial values on it, and make it tangible, transparent, and legitimate to use. “A lot of the barriers that people felt were there, or were perceived to be there, have been removed,” the Durham official said.

Some interesting workshops on the second day of the event addressed some of the more technical sides of social value measurement. One session from the Office for National Statistics and Happy City UK looked at how wellbeing can be put at the centre of decision-making, and introduced us to its ‘Thriving Places Index’ for local authorities, which breaks down wellbeing into something manageable.

Another session from Bath Social & Development Research – founded by researchers from the University of Bath – focused on Qualitative Impact Protocol, an innovative way of collecting and analysing qualitative data on social impact, and looked at what capacity and appetite there is to undertake qualitative analysis.

A movement in the right direction

There are, undoubtedly, challenges ahead. Guy told PSE that, after conducting a survey, his organisation found that just 10% of local authorities had any information about social value policy on their website – while 75% didn’t even mention the words.

Concerning as this may be, there have been some massive steps since last year’s conference. Most notably, when Cabinet Office minister David Lidington announced that social value will become central to government and that it will be using the TOMs framework. This is fundamental, as it means local and central government will be using the same measurement solution and heading in the same direction.

Whether it was listening to thought-provoking and impassioned keynote speakers, learning more about the achievements of those leading the way in social value, or taking part in the interactive workshops and roundtables that got down to the nitty-gritty of social value in practice, one thing is perfectly clear: people are not just talking about social value anymore. It’s already here, being implemented across the country, and making a difference. This year’s conference was imbued with a real sense of enthusiasm and purpose, and showed that social value is now a movement with serious momentum.

To end on the words of Desmond Tutu, as quoted by Lynn Collins in her keynote speech: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”


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