How should public sector policymakers understand the social value of socially innovative services?

christopher-daysonChristopher Dayson, Sheffield Hallam University

Social innovations provide new ways of addressing entrenched social problems that are more effective, sustainable or fair than existing ways of working. They create value for society as a whole rather than for private individuals. Public sector policymakers like the idea of social innovation because it offers them new and exciting ways to support people with multiple and complex needs in ways that can also save money: a combination that is increasingly referred to as ‘social value’. This is important because, since 2012, social value has been enshrined in law through the Public Services (Social Value) Act which requires public bodies to take account of economic, social and environmental well-being impacts when commissioning and procuring services. However, and despite its legal status, social value remains something of a fuzzy concept and there is very little good quality evidence about the types of value that social innovation leads to and how this is understood by policy makers.

Our research, summarised in our recent Policy & Politics article entitled Evaluating social innovations and their contribution to social value, explored one prominent area of social innovation – social prescribing – to identify the broad range of social value that can result from a socially innovative pilot project.

The research employed a ‘blended value’ approach to understanding social value to allow a broad series of benefits arising from a socially innovative service – financial, economic and social – to be captured from a variety of stakeholder perspectives. These stakeholder level distinctions are really important in the case of social innovation, because it is said that innovation can only be considered truly social if it creates greater benefits to the public or society than private interests. Our work on social prescribing demonstrates how a multi-stakeholder blended value approach can shine a light on a whole range of benefits arising from a social innovation pilot:

  • the commissioner – the local NHS – benefitted because we were able to identify statistically significant reductions in accident and emergency attendances and emergency hospital stays
  • patients – people with long term health conditions – benefitted through sustained improvements in their well-being and social connectedness
  • the social innovators – local voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations – benefitted because they became more sustainable and had an opportunity to showcase the true value of their work

The social prescribing case study highlights the important role public policymakers play in deciding what constitutes social value. Typically, they prefer quite narrow quantitative measures of change that provide evidence of ‘hard outcomes’ and ‘cashable savings’. Although this is understandable in the context of austere public sector budget cuts, social value is a multi-stakeholder phenomenon and evaluation of it should reflect a range stakeholder perspectives and a mix of research methods. These were key features of the blended value approach we used in our evaluation of the social prescribing pilot and the benefits identified for local social innovators are a good example of how a multi-stakeholder approach can unearth evidence that would have not have been identified if a narrow definition of social value had been followed.

Our case study also highlights the social value ‘journey’ of the social prescribing policymakers. By taking on a broader range of blended value evidence in making their decision to re-commission the service, they demonstrated a real step-change in their understanding and expectations of social value, ultimately realising that it can and never should be seen as a zero-sum game. The way in which this was achieved also highlights the dual purpose of social value: although using social value evidence to demonstrate progress against key aims is important, this evidence also provides a focus for discussion and communication between policymakers and the providers of a socially innovative service. Throughout the pilot, policymakers and social innovators discussed the emerging social value evidence on a regular basis which raised policymakers’ awareness of the wider benefits of the services they had funded. In fact, by assigning equal weight to the different types of evidence they collected, policymakers’ understanding of what counts as ‘valid’ evidence evolved to such an extent that they became convinced of the importance of including a broader range of evidence and stakeholder perspectives that would not have been possible if they had followed their original narrow definition of social value.

We therefore recommend that policymakers who are interested in understanding the advantages of socially innovative public services should explore a blended value approach to social value evaluation. It is only by doing this that they will develop a full and rounded understanding of the social and economic benefits of the interventions they have funded.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read Institutional embeddedness and the scaling-up of collaboration and social innovation: the case of a Hong Kong-based international NGO by Eliza WY Lee and Juan Manuel Restrepo.

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