The Social Value Act: the gap between policy and practice





In the final blog of our series on the public service ethos, we turn to the Social Value Act. Could this be a 21st Century way of reinvigorating the public service ethos? Dr Jenny Harlock considers the challenges facing the Act. 

In January 2013, assessments of the social value of public services became officially enforced via the Public Services (Social Value) Act (2012). For the first time, public sector commissioners are legally required to consider the wider social, economic and environmental benefits of services in the procurement process. Since then social value has become a key focus for the government’s new Commissioning Academy and a core debate for the cross-government Public Service Transformation Network.

In these tight economic times, the Social Value Act appears to offer an alternative approach to public sector commissioning:in line with the ‘best value’ duty on local authorities, the Act promotes a move away from narrow concerns with cost-efficiency towards achieving maximum value. It is a key dimension to outcomes-based commissioning, as the public sector attempts to commission what is important to service users and communities. It is even an antidote to the fragmenting and divisive effects of austerity politics, signifying what is to be valued collectively in the public realm.

Yet early on concerns have been raised about the potential impact of the legislation due to the limited guidance on how to implement social value in commissioning in practice (Social Enterprise UK, 2012; Cabinet Office, 2012). Social value is difficult to define, and even harder to measure.

Recent interviews undertaken with adult social care commissioners reveal that commissioners are struggling to find meaningful and user-friendly ways to assess social value. The few established methods that exist such as Social Return on Investment were seen, by some, to be too complex to implement, and not appropriate for either all services or providers. A shared view was that assessing social value requires both different indicators and different skills to analyse and apply it, along with a more flexible procurement process to give providers the freedom to demonstrate the social value of what they do. This is a particular challenge for those working in adult social care: where service users are some of the most vulnerable groups in society, quality and safeguarding responsibilities often take priority in evaluation of services. At the same time, assessing social value was seen to be instinctive, and the flip-side is that over-analysis could turn it into a “bureaucratic nightmare” (interviewee).

These findings are probably most significant for the third sector – a key driving force behind the legislation (Harlock, 2014). The Social Value Act has been widely heralded as an opportunity to level the playing field for third sector providers vis a vis commercial organisations. For many in the sector, it represents an opportunity to show-case the often praised – but difficult to demonstrate – distinctive ‘added value’ of third sector providers, thereby increasing the sector’s share of public service contracts (Teasdale et al., 2012). But the challenge of measuring social value is also being felt by the sector (Arvidson and Kara, 2013). There are examples of good practice emerging both amongst local authorities and third sector organisations (Hurd, 2014), and the third sector is bringing its expertise to bear on developing methods for demonstrating social impact (see However there is a danger that, faced with increased financial pressures, risk-averse commissioners will stick with what they know.

Implementing the Social Value Act requires significant cultural and behavioural change in the public sector. In the words of one commissioner interviewed:

“we’ve got thirty years of local government culture to unbundle, you’re not going to achieve that in just three or four years”

For the third sector, this means that the challenge of measuring and demonstrating social value is likely – for the time being at least – to remain in its hands.

You can read the full paper by Jenny Harlock, “From outcomes-based commissioning to social value?” here []


Arvidson, M. and Kara, H. 2013 “Putting evaluations to use: From measuring to endorsing social value” Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper 110, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Cabinet Office 2012 Procurement policy note – the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 – advice for commissioners and procurers. Available at

Harlock, J. 2014 “From outcomes-based commissioning to social value? Implications for performance managing the third sector” Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper 123, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Hurd, N. 2014 “One year on: what impact has the Social Value Act had so far?” The Guardian, 4 February 2014. Available at

Social Enterprise UK 2012 The Social Value Guide, Implementing the Public Services (Social Value) Act. Available at

Teasdale, S., Alcock, P. and Smith, G. 2012 “Legislating for the big society? The case of the Public Services (Social Value) Bill”, Public Money and Management, 32 (3): 201-20

Jenny Harlock is a Research Fellow at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham. This blog first appeared on the Health Services Management Centre’s Viewpoint blog

2 thoughts on “The Social Value Act: the gap between policy and practice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s