Social value: how to be good

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When it comes to doing the right thing we all need a little nudge now and then. Five years on, we look at the impact the Social Value Act has had

Although the notion of corporate social responsibility – CSR – has been embedded in the business world for decades, there’s little common consensus over what it actually means. Loosely defined, it’s the idea that businesses have an obligation to be conscious of their social impact and give something back to the community within which they operate – for example, by mitigating their environmental footprint or engaging in charitable projects. In other words: a duty to be good. 

The concept itself has been criticised for its vagueness, its lack of specific aims and measures and its reliance on self-policing, as well as the danger of focusing on corporate image over social benefits. As a buzzword, CSR has gone out of fashion over the past 10 years, but a new idea has emerged to fill the gap: social value.

“We’re starting to see a more nuanced and targeted approach [to creating social value]”

Charlie Wigglesworth, Social Enterprise UK

The term is no less vague, but it has the advantage that, in the UK at least, it has been formalised in a piece of legislation. The Public Services (Social Value Act) came into force on 2013, calling for everyone procuring public services to consider how the work they commission “might improve the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the relevant area”, rather than simply looking at cost. It’s only a short document, but it enshrines social value into public policy, creating an obligation for private sector actors to consider a new criteria when bidding for government contracts. The hope is that this will eventually encourage change across the industry. 

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