The biggest missed opportunity for NI's 3rd Sector

11 Aug 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Aug 2017

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir - a big supporter of Social Value Act

There has been much coverage of the impact of no government on the sector. To date it has not featured what is surely the biggest lost opportunity of all. 

There has been much coverage of the impact of no government on the sector. To date it has not featured what is surely the biggest lost opportunity of all.

In 2013 the Social Value Act came into law. It covers England and Wales and is designed to encourage commissioners of public service to consider how their spending will secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits. The Act was drafted in order to create a more level playing field for Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations to bid for public sector contracts.

It applies to the commissioning of services above the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) procurement threshold. This is currently £111,676 for central government bodies and £172,514 for other bodies (including local authorities). To comply with the Act public bodies need to demonstrate that they have considered social value in preparing and awarding their tenders.

It is not compulsory for this process to be followed for smaller contracts but the same process is encouraged.

This is a prudent and sensible piece of legislation. Given the relative scale of the public sector and its spending within our economy, a well executed social value commissioning policy would be transformational at a time when many potential providers who could offer better service miss out in a procurement culture where cheapness trumps every other factor.  

Sadly it does not apply here. The tragedy is that its introduction was one of the measures planned by our last Executive which has fallen by the wayside with its collapse. The announcement that a Bill was being prepared was made just three days before the Assembly Elections were called.

Former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was especially enthusiastic. Here is a video of him waxing lyrical about its potential and his commitment to it. Legislation in Northern Ireland has all party support.

The lack of progress is especially disappointing, not just because currently the best, most knowledgeable bidders can often miss out on contracts but also because of the missed opportunities to provide added social value that such a policy would bring. It would also have the added advantage of bringing community organisations into the procurement mix, with their specialised, on the ground expertise.

Those social enterprises who campaigned so hard for a Social Value Act are desperately disappointed. However it is not necessarily all doom and gloom.

The Research Institute at the Power for Change  has just published a review of the Westminster Social Value Act. Its findings give civil servants, who are still at work, and yet to publish a draft bill the chance to learn from how the Act has worked in practice and to ensure that the final draft avoids these pitfalls.

After four years of operation the Act is only just bedding down in England and Wales. One problem is that there are few new bidders entering the fray. The authors state that this is because there is little awareness amongst community organisations and community businesses.

The lesson for Northern Ireland is that an Act should be backed by a marketing campaign aimed at the sector. Without being complacent, this should not be such a problem in Northern Ireland where networks between organisations are strong and news of new opportunities spreads fast.

Another is that commissioners and contractors alike struggle with identifying suitable tools for capturing impact that don’t limit the diversity and innovation of local social value initiatives. Furthermore measurement is a particular challenge for community businesses who are feeling the pressure to demonstrate and communicate their impact but have limited knowledge or expertise about how to do it especially when it comes to demonstrating softer and longer-term outcomes.

In a bedding down period it is understandable that this is happening. However there are many, well respected tools for measuring social investment out there it would not be too much to expect the public and Voluntary and Community Sector to get together to agree on the basic parameters and for training to be provided as part of a package. At a time when we are being told that the Outcomes based approach is the only show in town, this does not seem an insurmountable problem. In the absence of government there is time to discuss and agree potential solutions should a Bill be enacted here.

The third and most predictable problem is that evidence from England and Wales suggests that public bodies are “playing safe” in awarding contracts. In the face of continued cuts they continue to favour large commercial bidders, paying lip service to the new legislation.

Finally there is the financial limit of £111,676 for central and £172,514 for other bodies. The fact remains that much of the best work at community level will be done at figures below that where the Act does not apply.

So therefore our legislators have the opportunity to learn from the experience over the water. What we will need will be:

  • A marketing campaign to ensure that any Act here is widely known about and understood;
  • Agreement and clarity on what social value is and how it is measured and assessed;
  • Tougher language to ensure that commissioners do what the Act is intended;
  • Extension of the Act to include smaller contracts where social value is just as likely to flow.

So let’s hope that the failure to implement legislation now can be turned into an opportunity by taking the evidence from the Power for Change report and ensuring that our legislation is more robust and effective. 

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