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Chris White MP: Social value holds the key to making public services sustainable

Chris White is the Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington. Follow Chris on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 10.33.23In June this year, I was delighted to be appointed as the first ever Social Value Ambassador by the Government, in order to champion my Private Member’s Bill which passed last year – the Public Services (Social Value) Act – and to support the social value agenda more widely. Since the Act passed, and now in my new role, one of myths I am keen to combat is the idea that considering social value is a burden upon public bodies at a time when they need to be focusing on other issues.

As a candidate in Warwick and Leamington, one of the most consistent concerns I heard from residents was about how we can improve the quality of local services, despite the difficult economic environment. Most people recognise that we are facing a period where public spending cannot increase as rapidly as it has in the past, yet we have to find ways to ensure that services meet the expectations of the public whilst keeping a downward pressure on cost. This is a challenge that is being felt across the public sector, and particularly amongst local authorities, and it requires new ways of thinking about commissioning and delivering services.

The Social Value Act, and the social value approach to commissioning, is a tool which public bodies can use to help rise to this challenge and balance the long term needs of communities. The Act asks public bodies to consider how they can use service contracts to provide additional economic, social and environmental benefits to communities, on top of the service that they are commissioning. In essence, social value asks local authorities and public bodies to think about how we can squeeze maximum value out of every penny of public money spent.

Often we spend money on public services and goods assuming that the provision of those services and goods is enough. However, providing goods or services should not be the only consideration commissioners should have. For example, whilst providing good health services locally is important, we should be aiming, when designing contracts for services, to find ways to help people lead healthier lives and improve public health, so that fewer people need to use services.

Another example is unemployment. Instead of waiting for people to go through the system and supported into work we should be proactive – encouraging apprenticeships or hiring those on the margins of the labour market such as those who have been in prison. This will reduce the demand on services and free up resources to be targeted on long term issues.

There is a tendency in the public sector to focus on the short term – moving from dealing with one problem to the next without thinking about how we change the way we do things to solve these issues in the long term. Social value is a chance for public bodies to break this cycle and give consideration to how we can improve the well-being of communities today through services we already deliver and free up resources for the future.

This must be done in consultation with the public. Across the country, there are people with talent and expertise who want to make their areas even better places to live. We need to use these people and charities, social enterprises and local businesses to help understand how we can create bespoke solutions which work to improve the lives of communities. It also means thinking about who is delivering services, and which organisations are best placed to generate additional benefits on top of the services that they are commissioned to deliver.

Another way in which public bodies can achieve this is by breaking down silos which have built up over the years. Just because money is being spent on health or education, it doesn’t mean that only outcomes which fall within those categories should be considered. Initiatives such as Community Budgets have shown the improvements that can be created for communities when public bodies and local authorities work together and think across departmental boundaries.

As Social Value Ambassador, I will be going around the country in the next few months and encouraging local authorities and other public bodies to consider these long term challenges and to work with local communities in understanding and delivering social value. The Government has also taken positive steps forward by introducing the new Commissioning Academy, which will encourage smarter commissioning across the public sector.

Social value is an idea which has come at a critical time in the future of public services in our country.  We have a choice between business as usual or radically reforming the way the public sector spends its money so that we not only deliver and improve the services people use but also focus on the long term needs of communities. Achieving this ‘holy grail’ in public sector commissioning is what drove me to create the Public Services (Social Value) Act and it is what will continue to generate momentum behind this concept.


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