Time for a social value reset?

30 March 2021

Time for a social value reset?

The sense of frustration was palpable as my senior project manager colleague ran through the significant challenges she was facing on this particular project in one of the more leafy and affluent boroughs of London.

These were not technical construction issues, or even COVID-related site challenges, but weighed just as heavily on my colleague’s shoulders. Simply put – “Despite everything we are doing Fozia, we just cannot meet the local authority’s mandated target for site-based employment opportunities.”

Let’s just take a step back here and put this all into context. The fact that the public sector, our industry’s leading customer, champions the importance of social legacy as a key element of its capital expenditure programmes, is undeniably a hugely positive development for our sector and society. Indeed, the Construction Industry Playbook is a roadmap to facilitate a root and branch perception transformation – away from lowest price, transactional behaviours, to collaborative, sustainable and value-driven (in its widest sense) operational practices.

Not a one size fits all

So why can I not only sympathise with my colleague, but actually make a very strong case that we need to re-evaluate public sector social value targets? The simple answer is that social value is not a one size fits all solution, and with increasing maturity and knowledge from both the client and contractor side, we can do so much more to enrich communities and leave a long-lasting and positive legacy for this capital investment.

“Despite everything we are doing Fozia, we just cannot meet the local authority’s mandated target for site-based employment opportunities.”

The example above perfectly highlights why a pro-forma approach to social value targets and outcomes is a far from perfect situation. With one of the highest rates of employment in the UK, my colleague was presented with an impossible and illogical recruitment target for her project, because simply there wasn’t the spare capacity in the market. The inflexibility of the system also prevented the targeting of underemployed individuals from neighbouring boroughs.

Community level impact

But actually, we already have a robust dataset in place to make the change to a more tailored and bespoke package of social value interventions that contractors can deliver as part of their contractual obligations. It comes in the form of local authority community needs assessment data. By prioritising social value performance metrics on the outcomes of contractors tackling these real-time societal challenges, not only does the community see greater immediacy of impact, but you enable contractors to focus on delivering programmes that really matter and eliminate potential gaming of the system.

There’s a further step we can and should take, and that’s an appreciative inquiry with local communities. This means early engagement with key community leaders, groups and citizens to get a granular perspective on what interventions and investments will have the largest societal impact at a local level. This shouldn’t be a one-time consulting exercise either, but we should take groups along the journey with us, and we must collect and evaluate the success (or otherwise) of our endeavours through every mechanism available to us. In this way we have the data, experiences and insights of communities for both the tangible and individually experienced benefits of social value investment.

We should accept that this might collectively mean that we are offering fewer employment opportunities in construction, but we should embrace the fact that investing and actively participating in offender retraining programmes, the construction of a new skate park or cycle lane, uprating football pitches or creating new community meeting spaces are actually just the social value legacy that our communities deserve.


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