The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 came into force at the end of January 2013 and is part of the government's 'Big Society' initiative.
The Act sought to encourage commissioners of public services to consider wider economic, social and environmental benefits when defining what they wanted to buy.
The main purpose of the Act was to introduce a pre-procurement consultation process which the government hoped would encourage commissioners to think more innovatively, enabling greater collaboration with social enterprises and communities and resulting in maximum value for money in austere times.
When the Act was first introduced though, it was initially met with some scepticism; the Act's aims were viewed as aspirational but possibly not achievable, particularly bearing in mind the constraints of public procurement law about taking social value matters into account during the tender process.
One year on, the Cabinet Office has published a report reviewing progress of the Act so far and setting out its plan to further develop its social value agenda under the Act.
Progress to date
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, observes in the Foreward to the report that the government is "encouraged" by progress so far, which he heralds as marking the beginning of a "growing movement" that will "enable the public sector to do more with less".
The report contains a number of examples of how commissioners have successfully used pre-procurement consultations to improve and strengthen the social value outputs of services contracts. And, perhaps addressing the criticism that the Act did not specify in sufficient detail how contracting authorities should conduct consultation processes, the report also observes that the strength of the Act lies in the very lack of prescriptive, "box ticking" style guidance from Whitehall.
The report also highlights the engagement by other organisations to help engender culture change in commissioning as well as the enthusiastic response of bidders who have risen to the challenge of increasing social value offerings which go beyond the corporate and social responsibility commitments usually provided in tender submissions.
So, what next?
The report accepts that there is still work to do, acknowledging that many commissioners are still to "get on board" with the idea of embedding social value into services provision, and that other commissioners are "held back by uncertainty" around how the Act interacts with the law. The government also accepts that service providers often find it difficult to demonstrate how they could add social value when bidding for contracts.
The government has pledged that it will focus its efforts on resolving these issues by upping support, including increased peer-led training for commissioners and a series of "Commercial Masterclasses" for suppliers to help them improve their bids. The government also hopes to ensure greater compliance with the Act through its Mystery Shopper scheme.
As much as the report highlights the Act's progress to date, it is still fairly light on insight into how successful the Act is proving to be. But with the heads-up that the government will be using the Mystery Shopper scheme to ensure future compliance with the Act, the report does serve as a gentle warning to any commissioners who are still to implement the Act's own values that they will soon need to do so.