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Reflections on why 'social value' is important now more than ever

Like many Australians before her, Vanessa Pilla, RPS' national lead for social advisory and research, moved to the UK to gain professional experience working in London, a truly global city that is open, diverse and exciting. Here she shares her insights. 

11 February 2021

Australia

ON THIS PAGE

I worked in a private sector role focused on maximising community benefits by leveraging the investments of large urban regeneration projects. I have paused to reflect on what enabled the social value agenda to become a priority in the UK in a pre-covid world and what lessons I could apply to Australia. 

The UK context is shaped by austerity measures that were introduced in 2010 in the aftermath of the global financial panic in 2008. This saw slashing budgets and government spending on social services, public health, social infrastructure and housing.

This has resulted in increasing levels of poverty in the past decade and a growing social divide. COVID has only amplified the inequality and has shone a spotlight on the areas of high deprivation that are experiencing greater death rates.  

Social Value Act

In a constrained funding environment, the UK government introduced the Social Value Act 2012 to influence the procurement process for public spending and to fundamentally ensure they were ‘spending public money in a smarter way’.

It gave the central government and local councils permission to act and to demand more for public sector contracts to ensure social, economic and environmental benefits were included in their decision making.

The legislation has strengthened since it was first introduced, and as of 1 January 2021, all major procurements must explicitly evaluate social value rather than just consider it.  

What gets measured gets managed

As a result of the legislation, many private sector organisations working across the built environment have developed frameworks to measure the social value. In my role, I worked closely with all our stakeholders and leading social economists to develop a set of outcomes and targets that could be measured.

It is an emerging area, and as a result, there is a lack of consistency around definitions and measurement methodologies. 

"As practitioners, we are still learning how best to define outcomes that are material to the impacted communities and who is responsible for delivering and reporting. Setting targets is a great start to ensuring outcomes are managed throughout the project lifecycle."

Responding to local needs

Large scale urban regeneration or infrastructure projects can have long time frames and wide geographies. I think it’s important that social value is measured at a local level, where the impact is greatest and the opportunity to influence is highest.

Taking a place-based approach ensures the local context and stakeholders are understood and considered to create a shared value proposition throughout the design, planning and delivery of projects.

Partnerships and collaboration are key

In order to meet any place-based objectives, I’ve always collaborated with a range of stakeholders to achieve the desired outcome. Community expectations are changing, and the way we engage with institutions, civil society groups, government, and the private sector needs to be transparent, authentic, and inclusive.

For me, working in the private sector has highlighted the value of having large business around the table to help solve complex social challenges, not only because it is the right thing to do but because it makes business sense.

Yes, an active corporate social responsibility agenda can reduce corporate risk but done right, it can also create new value propositions and opportunities. Governments should not have to do it alone, they have an important role in understanding the context and setting the ambition and challenge.

One of the projects I’m most proud of is the Loneliness Lab - a project co-founded by Lendlease UK that aimed to design out loneliness from our cities. It brought together hundreds of organisations around the UK to understand the drivers of loneliness, experiment with ways to tackle it in our spaces and places and influence policy and industry changes. It is an excellent example of a collaborative model that tackles the systemic challenges facing our cities that can engage private, public and third sector organisations.  

What gets me up each morning is my desire to leave a positive impact on the world. I am driven by social justice, fairness and honesty and believe that finding connection and building relationships will lead to a deeper understanding of what problems need to be solved together.