Can law really change minds and win hearts? Why the Public Services (Social Value) Act does just that

Coming into force in January 2013 the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 is a short and sweet piece of legislation. Very simply, it requires every English public body (and many Welsh ones), whenever it is about to procure services, to consider how what it proposes to buy might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the surrounding area, and how, in conducting the procurement process, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.

One of the powerhouses behind this legislation, so ably steered through Parliament by Chris White MP, is Social Enterprise UK, which hosted its Social Value Conference on 20th November, bringing together a large audience that represent the tip of an iceberg of collective activity galvanised by the Act. At the conference Social Enterprise UK launched new guidance [1] - “The Social Value Guide: Implementing the Public Services (Social Value) Act”. This guide explains the Act, describes social value, and then sets out some guidelines on how to put the Act into practice.

A key component of the Act is the requirement on public bodies to consider the economic, social and environmental well-being of the areas that they serve. This has been common practice for local authorities for at least a decade: it is easy to do so when there is clear geographical area to apply this thinking. Housing associations and NHS bodies should also find this perfectly within their competence. It is more difficult possibly for Government departments with national remits to reflect in these terms.

To help this thought process the new guide recommends that all public bodies should adopt an identifiable social value policy. Rather than adopt a set of loose commitments, a social value policy can and should be defined in terms of the benefits that it promotes, such as:

  • promoting training and employment opportunities, often for under-represented groups, for example for youth employment, women’s employment, the long-term unemployed and people with physical or learning disabilities;
  • promoting compliance with social and labour law, including related national and international policy commitments/agendas;
  • promoting SMEs and civil society organisations through an observance of existing duties of equal treatment, proportionality and transparency and by making subcontracting opportunities more visible;
  • stimulating socially conscious markets;
  • demonstrating socially responsive governance;
  • promoting fair and ethical trading;
  • ensuring more effective and efficient public expenditure;
  • contributing to health improvement priorities;
  • stimulating social integration;
  • stimulating demand for environmentally-friendly goods, services and works;
  • contributing to climate change mitigation targets and to energy efficiency.

If every contracting authority adopts such a policy, the scope for reflecting social value in procurement will be greatly enhanced. It does not have to be a long document – just one that demonstrates commitment to unlocking real value for money in public services.

Under EU law, a policy of this kind will legitimise the environmental and social characteristics that are reflected in a contract and the evaluation criteria adopted to determine the service provider chosen at the end of the procurement process [2].

The development of a social value policy goes beyond doing a tick box exercise to comply with European procurement laws. At the Social Value Conference some good learning was shared including:

  1. the need for public bodies to embrace social value in all their activities and operations: well-being thinking has to be embedded throughout the public service realm;
  2. the development of well-being thinking must be done not through a top-down brainstorm but through active consultation with local communities and customers of public services.

This approach blows open assumptions about good practice, wise expenditure and meeting real need. What the Social Value Act does is to counter the “am I bovvered?” behaviours that can typify so many parts of the public arena. It’s part of a journey that should lead to greater resilience and more collaboration in times when the conventional is often unaffordable.

Mark Cook is a partner at Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP and helped to write the new guide: “The Social Value Guide: Implementing the Public Services (Social Value) Act”.


[1] http://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/uploads/files/2012/11/social_value_guide.pdf

[2] Concordia Bus Finland OyAb (formerly Stagecoach Finland OyAb) v (1) HelsinginKaupunki (2) HKL– Bussiliikenne (2002) (C-513/99)