Social value measurement made ‘transparent and democratic’?

There is an interesting post (Social value? All you have to do is ask — and now you can) over on the State of Life blog, somewhat over-excitedly welcoming what the organisation believes is a new dawn in the defining and democratisation of social value measurement arising from HM Treasury’s incorporating new guidance on wellbeing into its ‘bible’ of procurement process and policy, The Green Book.

This new guidance, Wellbeing Guidance for Appraisal: Supplementary Green Book Guidance was adopted by HMT in July 2021 (when most of us were preoccupied with somewhat different ‘wellbeing’ problems) and it spells out how and why wellbeing measures should be used in assessing public spending decisions. It also makes the case for the recently devised WELLBY measurement being central to this. A WELLBY is short for “Wellbeing-adjusted Life Year and is defined as a change in life satisfaction of 1 point on a scale of 0 to 10, affecting one person for one year.

State of Life’s enthusiasm for this development is easily explained: it is a data and impact measurement company and for several years has been pioneering wellbeing measures including the WELLBY as a basis for social value measurement. This offers the official recognition it has been hoping for.

But what does it mean for the wider social sector?

Well, as a key shift in defining what social value means and how it might be assessed in public spending, it probably does have quite a lot in its favour. For instance:

» For too long social value measurement has been dominated by proprietary models — ‘social value data-banks’ that use complex spreadsheets to combine outcome measures, proxies and financial equivalents. The cost of adopting these was high, but their credibility and acceptance was always contested. Were they reliable and meaningful? And if so, who was paying attention to the results?

» By focusing on established wellbeing measures — including ONS-approved Life Satisfaction survey questions [footnote 1] — it can be said that this new guidance offers a methodology that is officially recognised, universally applicable, and closely allied with other established measures such as the NHS’s QALY measure (‘Quality Adjusted Life-Year’). And many will regard the fact that it requires asking real people how they regard their own life-satisfaction being affected as a result of public policy decisions to be an additional advantage.

Now I’ll be perfectly honest: I have no idea how effective the ONS Life Satisfaction survey is in assessing personal or community wellbeing, but I can see that it offers a universal method whose parameters can be widely understood. I also regard it as more evidently in the public interest precisely because it isn’t a proprietary system whose IP is owned by commercial companies.

But even this exhaustive new guidance will leave some complex questions. For example, causality: does this programme or service or policy ’cause’ these outcomes? What additional outcomes may be attributable to other (related or non-related) causes? How can double-counting be avoided? Well, not surprisingly Wellbeing Guidance for Appraisal: Supplementary Green Book Guidance has extensive chapters on these and just about every other issue you can think of.

If you are interested in new trends in social value assessment or definition then you could do worse than have a look at the Treasury’s new guidance on wellbeing. However, as is always the case, the real test will be seeing how it translates into practical expression in actual, real-life procurement and commissioning. And whether it results in more social sector providers winning public contracts.

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Footnotes:

Footnote 1: The Office for National Statistics (ONS) uses four survey questions to measure personal wellbeing. The questions are: (1) “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” (2) “Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?” (3) “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” (4) “Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?”

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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