Social value, is everyone on the same page?

1st April 2024
Social value, is everyone on the same page?

What does social value mean to you? How do we measure it? And is it at risk of becoming a tick box that organisations use to market their good endeavours?

Our latest A Place at the Table event gathered a group of professionals working in and around the built environment to challenge what social value is, and how it should be planned and assessed. The event focused on three key questions, prompting wide-ranging discussions. Karyn Williams, our Head of Social Value, reflects on the topics discussed at this event.

Who should decide what the local need is and what ‘positive social impact’ looks like?

Community members are best equipped to decide those important local needs, and it should be delivered for long term success across all generations. So, let’s focus on delivering social impact, rather than ‘value’.

As professionals, we have a role to play in un-muddling the difference between wants, needs, and aspirations. For example, residents might see their neighbouring town get a new swimming pool and feel they need the same. But in reality, it may be a case of needing somewhere to meet up, hang out, exercise, and host events, which could happen in a different type of space altogether. It requires early conversations to build trust and understand those aspirations so we can deliver spaces with lasting positive impact.

How we communicate with stakeholders is crucial to this, from the questions we ask, to the language we use, to unbiased listening and actively seeking out unheard voices.

For example, instead of asking users what needs to change or what isn’t working, a more positive approach would be to ask them to imagine their best possible vision for a place. Doing this before the briefing stage allows us to form designs around their vision so we don’t go in with preconceived ideas of what success looks like.

To make these conversations more accessible to everyone, Cardiff’s Grange Pavilion trained local people to host events and interview other residents. This is a great example of how to build trust and use local knowledge to involve parts of the community who don’t typically attend engagement events.

How do we establish whether a positive impact has been delivered?

Social value metrics are a major focus of procurement, and clients may always need quantitative data to fairly compare bids. But over-relying on statistics can cause issues, leading to lower impact or being disingenuous.

First, there’s usually a percentage of social value targets which don’t get delivered locally or meaningfully, with only low-value outcomes available to the consultant teams. So how do you respond or measure the impact of that undelivered amount? The contractor often becomes the fall-guy for these undelivered commitments, while local needs might change during this time and the inflation costs cause the project value to rise.

Focusing solely on wholescale metrics creates a risk of bids racing to the bottom—or the system being gamed. Cash-strapped public sector clients rarely have the resources to scrutinise this aspect of procurement, so a better approach might include a menu choice of social value outcomes to weight the bid scoring. Clients could then ask, “what local, relevant outcomes will the project deliver?”

It’s only in the last few years that social value has been an increasing focus of the conversation, partly due to a rise in the use of measurement frameworks like TOMS. But this can lead to social value feeling as though its delivery is separate from the project itself. Instead, it should be embedded within the design and process, where the impact is often greater than the sum of its parts.

Contractors are keen to deliver meaningful outcomes too, preferring to make positive change within their capabilities over contractual commitments, which are often supplementing reduced services and pressures on local authority funding. The risk here is that social value is used to replace capital shortfall, or could even be perceived as social washing. There’s a strong commitment from consultants to help support clients in establishing what that relevant and optimal impact could be.

Which methods are best to describe success or lessons to be learned?

Impact takes time to measure, complicated with places and generations in constant evolutionary flux. If you only look to measure the monetary value of a design, you miss the bigger picture and those converging, ever-changing local needs.

This again comes back to the importance of qualitative data. We need those personal stories to understand people’s lived experiences of those spaces once they’re in operation. By leaning into feedback, good and bad, lessons can be learnt, issues can be resolved, and future projects will benefit.

Investing in skills training would also help procurement teams better understand consultant, contractor, and supply chain capacity, understand local needs, define appropriate social outcomes, and evaluate how it’s best summarised. This education should be available for everyone: suppliers, clients, developers, and consultants.

Finally, without a single definition of social value, the very nature of its intent to be responsive to a specific place and culture leads us to question whether we can truly universalise something that can’t be universalised.

A Place at the Table is an informal setting where influential shapers of the built environment share questions, ideas, and good food. The overarching theme is modern placemaking and with around 15 guests, there’s space for everyone to contribute, speak freely, and be heard. The result is lively, candid, and cooperative conversations that bring us closer to challenging conventions and countering the issues we face across the built environment.

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