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Interview – How AECOM is embedding social value within the engineering sector

AECOM is one of the largest multidisciplinary consultancies within the built environment, employing over 6000 people in UK and around 56000 globally. Recently we sat down with two representatives from AECOM’s UK and Ireland division, Carmen Harris, social value lead and head of corporate responsibility, and associate bid director Zac Dixon, to discuss what social value means to them and why it is essential to AECOM’s practice within the engineering sector.

 

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

 

How do your roles in AECOM relate to social value?

Carmen

Zac, I and others have been working very closely together to develop and implement an internal social value operating model and framework. The objective of that has been to engage the almost 50 offices across the UK in understanding what social value is, how they can embed it within in their region, and what tools they can use to actually make it happen. The Social Value Portal in that respect has become a really trusted advisor for us and our partnership, 18 months in, it has been extremely valuable in helping us to articulate our aims and use the National TOMs (Themes, Outcomes, Measures) framework to capture the impact that we’re making in social value.

Zac

So along with maintaining our internal operating model, as Carmen mentioned, I oversee what our clients are asking us for in terms of social value when we bid to deliver projects of all shapes and sizes. Basically, I’m responsible for taking what our clients are asking for and converting that request into something that produces meaningful social value for the client, while also ensuring that it is commercially viable for us as a company.

 

Why is social value important to the organisation?

Carmen

Well it’s important to AECOM because, first and foremost, we understand and know it’s the right thing to do. One of our organisation’s core strategic themes is around legacy, and in the UK and across the world we want to ensure that communities thrive as a result of the projects we help our clients deliver. On top of that we’re committed to employee engagement because we all know that people want to work for companies who are ethically minded and actually do stuff rather than just talk about it. As I’ve said before, the Social Value Portal have really helped us articulate what that means because it’s all well and good to say that it’s the right thing to do and that it’s about legacy but when it comes to advising clients, you have to think hard about how you apply social value in a way that is practical and meaningful.

Zac

I guess I would add that clearly this [social value] is becoming an increasingly big issue in the public domain right now. We operate as a company because clients pay us to do work, and so they’ve started to ask us more about how we are performing and what we are going to do when we work with them in this in this field. That includes both current clients that we’ve been working with for years and years, and new clients that we maybe haven’t worked with to such a great extent. From a relationship point of view, and from a business point of view, we have to take this seriously or we won’t do well as a company – and we certainly don’t shy away from that.

Carmen

Of course this [social value] is a developing area so we don’t have all the answers but alongside what Zac has mentioned, not only is there an opportunity to inform our clients but we also learn in the process, thus developing stronger relationships.

 

How has AECOM reacted to the current global pandemic? Has it affected your social value policy?

Carmen

Yes, absolutely. For starters, everybody in AECOM would usually get two days a year to volunteer and contribute to social value, but since March that’s just been challenging with physical volunteering being nearly impossible. We’ve had to adapt and we’re continually learning how to do that through things like attending virtual career fairs, along with developing in-house videos where our people talk about their roles in front of a camera. With things like supporting schools and mentoring people from disadvantaged backgrounds, we’re looking at how we create opportunities through these virtual spaces, and we’re continuing to refine and improve to make these experiences better. We are not there yet but learning all the time. This also applies to engaging our people internally. So, for example, a lot  of our offices have joined in a  a virtual fundraiser throughout July and August whereby people accepted a ‘Get Active’ challenge and competed to log  the most time spent not sitting in front of a laptop! Collectively we raised money for local communities and our charity partner CRASH who work with homeless and hospices..

Zac

It’s definitely been a challenge, no getting around it. Coronavirus is shaking everything up and in the shift to remote working and with budgets being squeezed, we’ve had to be a bit more creative around how we implement social value because, despite everything, it is still hugely important. It has to keep happening and we’re still seeking to understand how can make it work in the world that we are currently living in. We can’t go back to what we did before.

 

Do you think the engineering sector is doing enough with regards to social value? What improvements can be made?  

Zac

That’s a great question. Simply put: no, I don’t think we’re doing enough. We can definitely be doing a lot more. I think it’s that age old debate around carrot and stick. The question of “What’s in it for us?” is the real crux of it for any private company. What we’re seeing now, and you folks at SVP have been at the centre of this, is more people advocating for social value to be ratcheted up in procurement. The higher the weighting in the procurement exercise for social value, the better. That’s just the nature of capitalism, that’s the world that we’re in, but it’s absolutely the way to best ensure social value really happens through the life of the project. Occasionally it happens anyway and that’s great! But [procurement is] the best way to make sure it happens and that we as industry treat it as seriously as we would any other aspects of the contract.

There are absolutely pockets of good practice, and not so good practice, but what I would say is we have found social value in the design and engineering sector to be quite a challenge, perhaps more challenging than other areas of the built environment industry.

Within the industry of course you have those that engineer and design things at the beginning of the project lifecycle, those that build them, and then those that look after them. As someone whose career path has worked at all these stages, I can easily say that the engineering space is the most difficult to achieve social value through project delivery. This is down to lots of factors, but mainly that our business model is so very different to the other project stakeholders. We work on thousands of projects, all over the country – all over the world – of all different shapes and sizes. We generally resource our projects with people who have had some form of university background, and they may not always be local to the project itself. We also tend to much of our work in house, without requiring extensive supply chains.

So yes, we have found it to be a challenge but that’s no excuse. We’ve been doing a lot over the past two years to try and tackle this issue within the sector. Only by working closer with the other parts of the industry, those who build and those who operate and maintain, can we make a better impact.

 

What initiatives have AECOM implemented to support the delivery of social value?

Carmen

So alongside the aforementioned internal framework and operating model, we’ve organised ourselves internally in a way that allows social value to permeate throughout the organisation. We’ve been able to do that through senior leadership approval and through establishing a Social Value Steering Group, made up of various senior end market leaders. It’s also worth mentioning that we’re the first consultancy to have published a social value policy; and along with connecting with SVP, we’ve implemented a network of twelve social value Champions across the regions of the UK & Ireland to ensure that local needs are understood and actioned via our local offices. So the aim really is to make sure that everybody understands that this is more than just CSR, that these are really meaningful opportunities to contribute in a way that creates sustainable impact for the communities where we work.

Zac

One key aspect of our partnership with SVP is that we are using the National TOMs to measure, monitor and report our social value impact in everything that we’re doing in our offices and regions. What we’re also doing, is using that tool on particular projects that we’ve secured through our clients. There are so many examples we could talk about. Some of them are partnerships with charities and other third sector groups for the provision of services and works. Some of it is tied to a specific project that we’ve secured and we’re delivering. Some of it is just part of the ordinary function of how we operate our regional offices. And that’s something we’re really pushing here, asking “what can we do that other companies cannot?”. Finding specific skills that our people have spent years honing that will bring real benefit in terms of social return on investment, and we’re very selective around that. So just to reiterate what Carmen has said, over the past two years we’ve been setting up a huge amount of stuff internally, and we’re attempting to then convert that to a huge amount of stuff externally, which is creating the conditions whereby we can make a real difference in terms of social value.

 

Just to cap this off, why is social value important to you personally?

Carmen

I’ve had a long career in CSR and the last two years has been about evolving that into social value, which is much broader and more encompassing. It has more meaning and it creates more lasting impact. It’s about giving the opportunity for others to dip in and create that lasting impact through  their professional skills, their empathy, and through their general interest and willingness to volunteer. I think for me that it’s important to give people opportunities to engage, not just for the end users’ benefit but for their benefit as well as their own personal growth and professional development. Having the opportunity to introduce someone to societal challenges that may not affect them, but allow them to connect with people who are impacted and understand their story. We need to be kinder and understanding of each other in all aspect of our lives. That just makes sense to me.

Zac

Yeah definitely. As for myself, part of why social value is important to me is linked to my Christian faith but as well as that, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been fortunate enough to work across all the sectors of our industry in my career, covering that whole project lifecycle of design, build, finance, and operate. So, what I’ve seen is the unique ability that our industry has to do good and make an actual difference over and above contractual project delivery. It’s great going down this career track of business development and bidding and thinking “Wow, these two things can come together -this is brilliant!”. I’m also heavily involved with the Jericho Foundation – one of Birmingham’s biggest and best third sector and social enterprise groups – as both a trustee and Chairman of their Construction social enterprise. Jericho operate across the built environment and the model is to basically employ and train up people who face multiple and complex barriers to employment. Through this I’ve seen again and again the power of our industry to make such huge differences in people’s lives.