We welcomed the Government’s commitment in the Civil Society Strategy last year to use its buying power to drive social change.
By not just putting value for money but social value as an important criterion for assessing bids, the Government is sending a clear message: the future belongs to organisations who can deliver public services in a sustainable, inclusive and innovative way.
UnLtd sees first-hand how social entrepreneurs deliver public services with this ethos at their heart, centred around the people they aim to serve.
Earlier this year the government took a step forward and launched a consultation on how central government should take account of social value in the awarding of contracts. Many of the social entrepreneurs that we work with have got in touch to share their experience and thoughts around public sector procurement. This, together with our existing evidence base has revealed the following themes:
1. We need more qualitative metrics in the proposed framework
The Government has proposed a framework to evaluate and measure social value in contracts. While this is a great step forward, there is more to be done to ensure it achieves the ambition set in the Strategy.
A key limitation is that the proposed quantitative metrics don’t reveal the full picture. Simply comparing bids on such metrics does not create a level playing field for social entrepreneurs or a better outcome for the people the bid aims to serve.
Recognising this and assessing bids accordingly by using qualitative evidence will be critical. During informal discussion with civil servants, we understood the Government will consider assessing bids on how social value is going to be delivered alongside the quantitative metrics, and we welcome this approach.
2. A 10% social value weighting is not enough to make the desired difference
We welcome the proposal to have a minimum requirement. However, many social entrepreneurs have told us that they feel 10% is not enough to significantly change priorities and drive a shift towards embracing social value. Therefore, we are calling on the Government to increase this to a minimum of 20%.
It's also worth noting that even introducing a 20% weighting might make it seem as if social value was simply an add-on. If the Government is serious about delivering public services with values at their heart, they need to ensure that social value is a core consideration in bids
3. Ways to ensure the proposed framework does not create further barriers
We already know that there are significant differences in how commissioning bodies are accounting for social value within the existing legal framework. There are councils who treat social value as a clear priority, while others just do the bare minimum.
Government should ensure that public servants regard what’s in the proposals as the bare minimum and explore and evaluate more ambitious approaches to social value procurement.
A further risk is that social entrepreneurs, while very good at delivering social outcomes, are less well-resourced to evidence and communicate their impact. They often don’t speak this language and don’t have the financial and human resources to learn it, while large providers can employ staff specifically for bid writing.
Government should support social entrepreneurs to communicate and evidence their impact
Lastly, the proposed framework encourages large providers to incorporate social entrepreneurs in their supply chain, which could catalyse innovation in service provision and drive economic growth. However, the risk with this is that exploitative partnerships could be created based on the size of the partners - and simply measuring supply chain diversity in the bid assessment will not mitigate this risk.
Government should ensure that large providers treat social entrepreneurs as equal partners by aiming to monitor social value throughout the bid
4. Transforming the commissioning ecosystem to level the playing field for social entrepreneurs
We also know that simply implementing the proposed framework is not enough to unleash the potential of social entrepreneurs in delivering services. Large contract structures, delayed payments, burdensome bid requirements and risk-averse commissioning cultures mean the procurement playing field favours large providers.
We therefore encourage the Government to make procurement:
5. Listen to social entrepreneurs and the people they serve: the need for more co-design
We welcomed the Civil Society Strategy’s commitment to involve local stakeholders in commissioning in an ‘equal and meaningful way’, and to trust people to co-design the services they use.
Social entrepreneurs often offer radically different solutions to existing ones, based on extensive user involvement or often their own lived experience. This offers commissioners direct, close, trust-based insight into the needs and aspirations of the people they serve. That offers inherent social value and also means that future products and services can be better, more cost effectively designed, with greater fit to residents’ needs.
This approach is currently underused as in many cases commissioners are not open to working with social entrepreneurs if they don’t fit the narrowly defined constraints of the bid. In other cases, social entrepreneurs have told us that the current short bid deadlines don’t allow time for them to see a tender, design a solution with beneficiaries and then bid. As a result, commissioners end up with ready-made, one-size-fits-all solutions that fail to deliver the expected impact.
To truly achieve the Government’s vision of collaborative commissioning, we are asking the Government to:
6. Improve the use of the Social Value Act at local and regional levels
While we know that this consultation is looking at central Government, it is crucial that these changes are applied to all levels of public sector procurement (including local government) where a large proportion of public services are procured.
Our full response to the consultation is available here.
The Government now has 12 weeks to respond. When that happens, we will have a thorough look at their response and publish our reflections – so keep an eye on our blog and social media.
We will continue to work with the Government and offer our help in implementing the proposed changes.
I have been working for UnLtd since November 2016. As a Policy Officer I am working with the government and other decision makers to create a more enabling environment for social entrepreneurs to start up and thrive. Previously I gained experience in charity and social entrepreneurship consulting in Hungary. I have a BA in International Relations and a MSc in Management and have completed the Charityworks graduate scheme while working at London's Air Ambulance.
If you are an UnLtd award winner, or a social entrepreneur and havewith experience in public sector procurement (does not have to be successful) and eager to share it tothat could help inform our policy positions, please get in touch.
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