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Subtle links and clever commissioning

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The Public Services Act 2012 has placed a greater emphasis on measuring social and environmental benefits (or costs), as well as economic value in public sector commissioning.

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the role of the voluntary and community sectors. We’ve seen social return on investment (SROI), social auditing and a range of other methods emerge to quantify the added value that projects, programmes or organisations deliver.

The interest in social value is an extension of the growing focus on outcomes and impact more generally. Having more or less got my head round developing robust and measurable indicators, I’m now grappling with the need to understand how particular commissioning decisions might affect social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Some relationships are relatively straightforward to identify (though not necessarily measure). Decisions about youth provision in an area, for example whether or not to commission a youth centre, will have a direct relationship on young people.

This might impact on their wellbeing, job prospects, antisocial behaviour and educational attainment. So we may want to look at measures for those sort of factors. But some of these effects may not be seen for many years to come and even then we have to be (more or less) sure that the particular intervention is what has made the difference, not countless other factors. We can use existing evidence to make informed predictions about likely impact but this is far from straightforward.

However, youth provision, to continue the example, doesn’t just affect young people. It has a bearing on the lives of parents - most obviously - but also countless other groups.

We know that older people often feel more nervous about going out if there are young people hanging around on the streets. We also know that isolation of older people is likely to have a negative impact on their wellbeing.

The cost of adult social care among an ageing population is massive and growing. So we can begin to see that there is a relationship between health spending and social care and youth provision. This is a fairly simple relationship (in the scheme of things) but many more complex and unclear relationships between commissioning and social, environmental and indeed economic outcomes exist.

I’ve been impressed by the work that Birmingham City Council has been doing with Tony Bovaird to map outcome pathways. What is impressive about Birmingham’s approach is that it is not shying away from the complex relationships between inputs, outputs and outcomes.

Toby Blume, corporate council implementation lead, Lambeth LBC, and free school founder

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