Social Value is not enough – It’s time to restore Public Values

Last week the government launched a series of new initiatives around ‘Social Value’, a much vaunted policy agenda which started with the passage of the Social Value Act in 2012. Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington has announced that by summer 2019, government procurements will be required to take social and economic benefits into account in certain priority areas, as well as new transparency rules for those bidding for public contracts.

The government’s attempt to get businesses to consider their social impact can be understood as an acknowledgement that something has gone awry in the state of commissioning public services. The dramatic collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion in January 2018 has prompted a new wave of governmental thinking about how goods and services are purchased. With public opinion increasingly moving against poor provision of public services (most noticeably the much criticised railway system), this extension of the Social Value Act represents the government’s response.

However, in a new report published today, CLES argues that the government’s pursuit of ‘Social Value’ is often ill-equipped to defend basic standards and principles in our public services because it is too wrapped up in the market liberal and New Public Management orthodoxies which have come to dominate and weaken public service standards and delivery in recent decades.

In ‘Restoring Public Values in Public Services’, we outline how the wholesale adoption of the mantras of privatisation, New Public Management, and commercialisation in our public life have affected the values underlying our public services. We show how following a ‘private is best’ approach has led to a situation in which public services are too often outsourced to low quality, high cost providers who, in a race to the bottom, have compromised the dignity and safety of people who rely on these services.

We situate these developments in the broader neoliberalisation of the British state since the 1970s, which has seen an intentional reordering of our political economy, based on financialisation, deregulation of markets and privatisation, austerity in public services, erosion of union rights, with a relaxed approach to wealth extraction, through offshoring, distant shareholder dividends and executive pay. Part of this process has been a reconceptualization of citizens (i.e. those who hold deep social rights to high quality services) as ‘consumers’. This process has damaged our relationship with our core public services, making them less democratic, more bureaucratic, and less effective at providing for the community.

Our publication calls for an end to this weakening of public values, and suggests concrete policy steps that can be taken to restore these values and democratise our public services. Contrary to David Lidington’s suggestions, we argue that whilst the Social Value Act has helped, and we must do what we can with it, the Act is vague and ill-defined. In particular, the Act perpetuates the practice of viewing social value as a marginal benefit, distinct from paramount consideration of cost and quality of service. If we are to see the real restoration of public values, we must go beyond this limited view. We need to rebuild our systems and processes so that the creation of social value is the primary function of public services. Indeed, whilst some on the leading edge weight social value up 30/40% in the decision to award a contract, all too often we see small percentage weighting here. We believe that alongside more insourcing, municipal enterprises and new forms of democratic ownership, any organisation involved in public service provision must agree to public values, with the potential for social licensing as part of that. Our publication calls for the Social Value Act to be amended and potentially replaced by a Public Values Act, requiring all providers of public services to adopt public values. To make any Act meaningful, we also suggest that non-compliance is treated as a red line, meaning that providers would not be permitted to provide the service.

Britain’s public services were once a source of national pride, rooted in firm values of citizenship, community, and quality. Decades of privatisation, a rhetoric shift from citizens to ‘consumers’, and pursuing low cost, low quality outsourcing have all chipped away at the social and practical fabric of public services.

A Social Value Act will fail to stem the tide; only a wholesale restoration of core public values will do. CLES continues to enact tangible ways to achieve this, and ‘Restoring Public Values in Public Services´ is our latest contribution. Please read our report, share it, get in touch, and join us on our mission to restore much needed public values.