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What is the real story behind the Social Value Act?

Every week we talk to, learn from, and are inspired by amazing people doing innovative things in the world of social value so we were thrilled last week to be able to hear from Chris White, Mark Cook and Andrew O'Brien,  who were all instrumental in getting the Social Value Act onto the statute books.

The full interview will be published in the next issue of the Social Value Files, which will be coming to you in two weeks, but in the meantime, we wanted to share this quick-read Q+A with Chris.

Find out why the legislation is so vague;  what role Labour's Hazel Blears played; and how as a Private Members Bill, it almost didn't come to pass.  We also discuss how the Act might come into it's own post-Brexit.


Sarah
Without you, the Social Value Act would not be what it is today. Can you tell us where it all started?

It started life as a Private Member’s Bill in 2010. I was a newly-elected Conservative MP at the time, and I was selected high on the list in the ballot to propose a bill.  We could have put forward any multitude of suggestions and we did explore a variety of different ideas but none of them really captured my imagination.
 
It wasn’t until we started talking about ways to directly help the community that we turned to social value. I’d worked as a Councillor before I was an MP and I’d seen activities - such as a  local recycling centre - doing great things for their community, but in a contract bid it would often come down to cost and on that alone, they couldn’t compete. This is where the idea for the Bill began. Of course, social value wasn’t a new idea, people had been talking about it under various different guises for years, but the Bill gave it structure and provided the public sector with a means to account for the additional ‘social value’ a supplier could bring, rather than on price alone. 
 
I do need to pay a huge tribute to Andrew O’Brien and SEUK for their tremendous work in supporting and helping to build the campaign around the Bill and to Mark Cook for his work drafting it – they all played a major part in making the success of the Bill possible.



The Social Value Act now impacts some £25billion of public spending.  Did you think it would be so influential back in 2010?

I thought it was a good idea that could make a big difference and had longevity, but I didn’t realise how genuinely transformative the Act would be. Back then it was more about how we could get the Bill through Parliament and then we could look at how it could evolve.


Historically Members’ Bills rarely pass in parliament.  Did you have any problems getting the bill through?

We were fully aware in terms of timing that this was not long since the crash, so there was some sensitivity around the concept, but we had the good fortune of working in the period around  David Cameron’s Big Society agenda. This would prove critical to the Bill’s success given that it was a tangible manifestation of this philosophy.
 
It was still a challenge to get it to pass; successful PMBs are notoriously rare and since WWII only a handful have led to substantive legislative change.  You need the support of every single government department and as these Bills are read on Fridays when most MPs are in their own constituencies - you are asking them to give up a day there, which many are understandably reluctant to do! We spent a lot of time sending out letters and emails and trying to organise meetings with individual MPs to get their support. However, the Bill’s passage was also not unhindered by the lack of interest it inspired - perhaps because it didn’t attract such controversy it was given a fair hearing. Of course, the support of the front bench was pretty critical, but we also garnered cross party support and Hazel Blears was important in persuading her Labour colleagues to assist the passage of the Bill, regardless of broader party differences.

The bill is short and non-prescriptive, was this intentional?

Yes. The Act was a principle, a cultural change and a way of thinking rather than being prescriptive as to how procurement should be done.
 
I wanted it to offer practical ideas and solutions, but we were also very conscious of the economic landscape. Legislation that the government would see as burdensome to business would simply not pass.


 
Why does it only cover services, and not goods or works?

We originally planned for it to cover goods AND services but in the end, in order to get the required Government support, we faced a choice.  We could include goods and services but the threshold at which the Act would apply would be very high, or we could apply it to services only.  We thought at the time that it would be better to have something to build on rather than nothing!
 
 
Do you think the Act is still relevant today?

The fact that we are still discussing it is a testament to how relevant it still is. Its core principles are still fresh and cutting edge in many ways. It also resonates with a values-based society, which is the direction I believe we are heading. Post-Brexit we will be looking closer at domestic procurement policy and I hope the Social Value Act will be seen as an effective way of levelling up and up-skilling in this area. When done right, it should not be ‘burdensome’. It’s just about rethinking the way we are doing things.

What are the main challenges faced by commissioners and procurers when it comes to social value?

One of the biggest challenges of widespread implementation and adoption of social value is the solutions - whether that’s better public services, reduction in the cost of waste etc - are not immediate. Procurement officers are too often not measured on long-term outputs and outcomes and budget holders often see cost savings as more immediately pressing.
 
Even if your tender is about things that are meant to be mid to long-term and difficult to quantify - such as wellbeing, mental health or volunteering  - you may still be tasked to be thinking short-term, which means social value is not going to be as attractive as it could be in the decision-making process. I think once we start developing the tools to measure and quantify these things it will become easier. When we start seeing budgets more as projects rather than in silos, this is when social value is going to get closer to reaching its potential.

 

What’s next for the Social Value Act?

The way this is going to get bigger and better is through leadership, which is always a challenge. Ministers and even governments change and each one will want to do something different. We weren’t the first politicians to talk about this and we won’t be the last, but let’s hope that a decade’s good work won’t be undone.
 
The challenge will be to build on the success of the Social Value Act as opposed to starting afresh. We need to keep the name and make sure that we don’t lose the essence of the Act, which is about considering social value beyond the financial value of a project. If we can do this and we can connect the Social Value Act with our values-based society then this is when we will see an even bigger impact on our lives and the lives of the communities in which we live.

 
Chris White was the Member of Parliament for Warwick & Leamington from 2010 until 2017.  He is now the Director of the Industrial Policy and Insight Centre at the Manufacturing Technology Centre and a visiting Professor of Industrial Strategy at Loughborough University.
About the Social Value Conversations

'Samtaler' is the Danish word for 'conversation'  and one of our favourite things to do is to talk to,  learn from, and be inspired by, people who are doing something interesting or innovative in the world of social value and community benefit. 

Every month we share one of our conversations, so that you can learn from them too.  We hope you enjoy them. 

You can also join in the conversation on social media #socialvaluefiles.  Let us know if there's anyone you'd particularly like us to talk to and if you've missed previous interviews you can find them on our
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