To avoid ‘value washing’, it is essential we look beyond short-term publicity, to ensure social value initiatives are needed, embedded and transparently reported, writes Richard Dickins, MD of SVQM CIC.

In recent years, the concept of social value has gained significant traction within the United Kingdom, emerging as a cornerstone in both public and private sectors. It represents a shift towards a more inclusive and sustainable approach to value creation, transcending financial metrics to encompass environmental, social, and governance (ESG) aspects. However, as with any paradigm shift, the legitimacy and transparency of these initiatives are paramount to their success and public trust.

Understanding Social Value

At its core, social value is about creating positive change and contributing to the wellbeing of society. In the UK context, it involves actions that improve the environment, promote social cohesion, and foster economic growth that benefits all layers of society. This could range from corporate initiatives that reduce carbon emissions to public sector policies aimed at improving health and education outcomes.

The Challenge of Legitimacy

The legitimacy of social value initiatives is fundamentally tied to their actual impact. A key challenge here is the subjective nature of ‘value.’ What is considered valuable in social terms can vary greatly among stakeholders, making it imperative for organisations to engage in open dialogue with their communities and stakeholders to understand their needs and perceptions.

Moreover, the risk of ‘social washing’ – akin to the more known ‘greenwashing’ – is real. This happens when organisations purport to create social value without substantiating their claims or when such initiatives are more about publicity than real impact. Avoiding this requires a genuine commitment to social causes, embedded deeply into an organisation’s strategy and operations.

The Role of Transparency

Transparency is the linchpin in ensuring that social value initiatives are both legitimate and effective. It involves open communication about goals, strategies, and, most importantly, outcomes. Reporting mechanisms should not only highlight successes but also acknowledge challenges and failures. This level of honesty fosters trust and credibility.

In the UK, frameworks like the Social Value Model, implemented by the government for procurement, are steps in the right direction. They set out clear criteria and methods for evaluating social value, providing a more standardised approach to its measurement and reporting. However, there is still a long way to go in developing universal standards and metrics that can accurately capture the multifaceted nature of social value.

Embedding Social Value – Some Tangible Steps

To truly embed social value into the fabric of UK society, a collaborative effort is needed. This includes:

  1. Strengthening Policy Frameworks: Government policies play a crucial role in setting the tone and expectations for social value creation. Further development of these policies is essential, to make them more robust and comprehensive.
  2. Enhancing Stakeholder Engagement: Organisations must engage in continuous dialogue with their stakeholders to ensure their initiatives are aligned with actual societal needs.
  3. Investing in Impact Measurement: Developing tools and methodologies that can effectively measure the impact of social value initiatives is crucial. This not only aids in transparency but also helps in refining strategies for greater impact.
  4. Cultivating a Culture of Responsibility: Beyond policies and frameworks, there needs to be a cultural shift where creating social value is seen as an integral part of doing business or governing, not just an add-on.

In conclusion, the journey towards a society where social value is deeply embedded and valued is ongoing. It requires commitment, innovation, and above all, a transparent and legitimate approach. These are core principles behind the Social Value Quality Mark® – an accreditation founded on the belief that we must have a fair, standardised and independent way to audit and verify social value.

As we move forward, it is the collective responsibility of all sectors in the UK to contribute to this paradigm shift, building a society that is sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous for all.