I attended two events recently and both got me thinking about the question in the title of this blog.
One was a seminar led by Stephen Osborne which examined the ‘value’ created by public services. The other was the Social Audit Network (SAN) Annual Gathering.

Stephen Osborne is an esteemed and well-regarded academic at the University of Edinburgh Business School and has written extensively on public services. He was speaking at Glasgow Caledonian University and three things struck me about his talk and the subsequent discussion.

The first was that delivering services in response to public needs requires a quite different approach from running a business that sells products. Apparently, legislation states that public sector organisations have a duty to respond to ‘need’ in the population. Some discharge this by delivering services, others commission or buy the services from others. The key point is that the public sector must address ‘need’ which is evidenced in the population rather than creating demand for a service or product. In any case the delivery of the service should use a ‘different business logic’ which is dependent on the co-operation and trust of citizens. This working together and collusion is about adding value and positive change for citizens – in terms of meeting the needs, improving people’s quality of life, creating capacity within the community and generally making a better society.

The second was that public service delivery has fundamentally different values and a different end-game in comparison to running an enterprise. The delivery can use business management methods to improve internal systems, but it is essentially quite a different animal with a different set of values. This possibly has implications for social and community enterprises that also address social needs – they may need to look at their values as well as their financial bottom line.

The third relates to the discussion following the presentation, where there was a debate on accountability and the need to track, measure and report on whether or not the public service delivery was actually achieving its goals. The verbal exchanges recognised that tangible and often measurably indicators can be used to explain what has been delivered and to what effect, however, the less tangible, outcomes in terms of happiness, confidence and self-esteem are harder to account for.

Osbourne said that these highly important factors require a more investigative approach and one that often is inevitably more time-consuming and more expensive. It is interesting, in passing, that many local authorities have not re-instated previously abolished national performance measures – mainly due to cost. There would seem to be an opportunity to set local and meaningful targets on ‘social impact’ which is happening in Salford and reportedly across Greater Manchester as part of the devolution agreement.

The SAN Gathering was held in Liverpool on 20th October and was in two parts.

The morning looked at the basis of social accounting and audit and a number of case studies were presented which examined things that had worked well and others that were more of a challenge. There appeared to be a general consensus that regular reporting on the change that happens as a result of what a social or community enterprise does, is a good thing.

The afternoon concentrated on how we can believe what is contained in social reports.

An increasing number of annual social reports are being written by a wide range of organisations – from the small community-based enterprises running lunch clubs to the mega-corporate bodies providing a range of social services – both often on contract to, or at least working alongside, the public sector. With more and more organisations being contracted to deliver services for citizens in our society - how do we know they are doing a good job?

Looking at unsubstantiated and unverified social reports, makes me concerned that self-reporting as advocated by approaches such as social accounting, may descend into purely marketing exercises. There must be some kind of ‘audit’ of social reporting to ensure faith in, and the rounded integrity of, social reports.


Over many years SAN has worked with social, voluntary and community organisations in developing a ‘social audit process’ where qualified SAN social auditors chair a panel meeting which is a learning and supportive process as well as providing rigorous and robust scrutiny of an organisation’s social report.


The afternoon session at the Gathering also considered standards for audit processes and in particular, the forthcoming BSI standards for social value assessment reports were mentioned. This has to be welcomed as a way of ensuring that social organisations are not pedalling ‘fake news’.

A nagging concern, however, is that standards will be created by umbrella bodies without the active involvement of organisations on the ground - things will be done to people and grassroots organisations rather than with them. In applying national standards across the board, there is a significant danger of turning the ‘social audit’ into yet another tick-box compliance exercise, especially if it is controlled by a national standards institute.

‘Value’ for society is being created, but as a society we need to be able to track it and in doing so, we need to see the degree of value created and how to improve on it, thus being as effective as possible.

  • Self-reporting is the only practical way of tracking change created by the expanding plethora of different organisations that soon will be delivering all sorts of public services – either off their own bat or on contract to the public sector.

  • We, the public, need to have faith in the social reports and one way of creating this is to insist on some form of ‘social audit’.

  • Standards have to be established for the ‘social audit’ to ensure a procedural uniformity– but those standards should not be created in a vacuum but in some form of co-creation with social and community organisations. Thus, ensuring that they are understandable, transparent and trustworthy – and perhaps there is an opportunity to recognise the context with local measures.

Finally, there would appear to be a considerable degree of consensus within the public and social sectors on the need for social reporting – not only of the tangible but also the intangible. There is wide recognition that there has to be some form of check or audit to ensure that reality is reflected in the reporting. My plea is that in setting social audit standards they are not too complicated but are understandable and accessible (in all its meanings). Only that way will they become accepted and adopted by all.

www.socialauditnetwork.org.uk