The start of this week has seen social value hit the headlines. Something that normally would delight me – however, not this time. Many of you will have read the comments made by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new minister for government efficiency, suggesting that the weighting for social value within public sector contracts should be reduced. It’s a statement that has stirred much outrage among those organisations that have spent the past decade embedding social value into their practices with a view to improving lives and creating stronger, more resilient communities – and rightly so.
It smacks of a knee jerk attempt to reduce business red tape, whilst – ironically – missing the point on several levels. Sure, we’re all learning as we go, and we need to keep working to make it easier for businesses to engage on social value, which we are doing right now. But this is not some pious ethical theory. The public sector and businesses are working together to change lives and communities, tackle inequality and make the planet a better place. And yes, that has a financial impact – by helping the public purse and the taxpayer by bridging the gap. To the tune of £billions, in fact.
Having spoken with customers, no-one seems to think that trying to reverse the social value movement is the right thing to do. It isn’t just socially and environmentally wrong thing to do, it doesn’t even make good business sense. As a community thrives, so too does the workforce, which, in turn, helps businesses to thrive. Social value activities enable businesses to access talent, build resilient supply chains and underpin their long-term future.
The role of small businesses
One of the criticisms that has been levelled at the social value movement is that SMEs are somehow precluded, and I’d like to address that directly. We know that small businesses are actually better at social value than large ones, because they have deep community roots. It is no surprise that the Federation of Small Businesses has been an active supporter of the National Social Value Taskforce from Day 1.
Working in this role for almost a decade has afforded me the privilege of working with a vast range of inspiring people from all kinds of different organisations, and I can safely say that the social value movement is a diverse group of passionate people. But what is most striking is the way that it has grown in that time and gone way beyond public procurement. Being the catalyst for social value across the whole UK economy is something of which the public sector can be justly proud.
While of course we work with many big corporates, a large number of our customers are smaller businesses too. They are all doing amazing work and through our experience of working with them, we have witnessed the undertaking of a range of social value initiatives, that were often already in place. Take Nuneaton Signs as an example. A long-term pioneer of social value with a specific focus on creating work opportunities for those with disabilities, those who might have been out of work long-term or whose circumstances might for some other reason make finding employment more challenging. While equal opportunities has been Nuneaton Signs’ core ethos since 1982, they are now using the TOMs framework to report their activities and access new tender opportunities.
We help businesses like Nuneaton Signs to identify and report the initiatives they undertake, in turn supporting their tendering activity. And because one size doesn’t fit all, we have different products to cater for the differences in the needs of our customers, including a free option that is accessible to all.
The bigger picture
The minister’s intervention seems strangely out of tune with the times. Many citizens across the UK are more than just ‘feeling the pinch’ at the moment. At a time when public money is tight, 15 million were reported in poverty at the start of this year, energy costs alone are expected to make an additional dent of £2000 to the average household and the cost of living is going up, this is exactly the time to speed up the social value movement, not try to slow it down. While the Government has a Levelling Up strategy in place, this will take time – and surely we want less reliance on the public sector, with business being smart about how it supports, rather than more.
The new social value rules for central government, which seem to be particularly in the minister’s sights, are only news because central government is lagging behind. This is not about extra cost – it is about being both smart and visionary as a nation to secure our future.
So what now? Well, the response I’ve seen from businesses, communities and other organisations within the social value sphere gives me hope. We’re in this together for the collective good and we’re a passionate bunch. We are working hard to educate on social value and make it easier for all shapes and sizes of business to engage. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that community counts. And businesses are a fundamental part of that community.