It is nearly two years since Lord Young published his review of the Social Value Act which said that Government was one of the poorest compliers when it came to not applying the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. How much has changed?

Chris White’s recent review of the Social Value Act, Our Money Our Future, showed that in many ways we have come an awfully long way. There is no longer a lack of awareness, measurement or understanding of the Act in many parts of the social sector. Something like £25bn of public sector procurement is “shaped” by the Social Value Act. Within the NHS the Sustainable Development Unit is pushing social value. There is a social value lead in the Crown Commercial Service, which is charged with improving commercial and procurement activity within government. These are positive, if incremental steps. But what about Government Departments?

One might think that all Government procurement activity is the same, perhaps with some variation for health and defence. What appears to be the case, though, is that Departmental procurement is a way of delivering each Department’s plans with their different priorities. This leads to different approaches.

Shamefully, the procurement page for Department for Culture, Media and Sport – which covers the charities and social enterprise – has no mention of the third sector, social enterprise, charity or the Social Value Act on its procurement page. Think about that for a second. The Department charged with helping put the third sector on a sustainable footing gives no indication on its own procurement page of wanting to do this itself through its own actions. This is not good, but it is made worse by other Departments which do indicate their support for social enterprise and charities. Can you guess which ones are supportive?

 “Think about that for a second. The Department charged with helping put the third sector on a sustainable footing gives no indication…of wanting to do this itself…”

The Ministry of Defence, which perhaps one might not think is the natural home for social enterprise, is very positive. But here it is: “We recognise SMEs have a great deal to offer in promoting economic growth. We are working to help SMEs, including social enterprises and charities, gain a greater share of defence related business. For more information, please see our refreshed SME policy launched in March 2016.”

Honourable mentions should also go to the Home Office procurement page , the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) procurement page, and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).  The Home Office page states “We also follow the Public Services (Social Value) Act which requires commissioners who procure services to consider social, economic and environmental benefits.” DEFRA does not quite so far but it does state that: “Suppliers should consider social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability…” DCLG’s procurement page states: “On 11 February 2011, the Prime Minister announced a package of measures designed to open up government contracts to SMEs (including voluntary/community organisations and social enterprises).”

The Government has set itself a challenging target of ensuring 33% of its procurement spend goes to small and medium sized enterprises, and most of the other Departmental procurement pages emphasise this. The Cabinet Office procurement page is typical of this approach: “All government departments must publish a set of specific targeted actions to increase their business with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is part of a package of reforms designed to open up the public sector marketplace to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced on 27 August 2015.” 

There is one important Department which does not appear to have a page devoted to procurement explaining how it uses its spending power to support SMEs. Can you guess which one?  Yep, it’s the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. You couldn’t make it up.

Perhaps what all this represents is a haphazard approach to putting information up on I suspect not. Where we have seen change, it’s normally because Ministers have made it happen – and this to some extent would explain the apparently curiously divergent approaches to social value and social enterprise across the Government.

Departmental approaches to procurement within Government is one area we are looking to explore more in 2018, with a view to shaping national policy on procurement, in addition to influencing policy and practice locally, and generating a supportive evidence base for the social enterprise movement – if you would like to know more about our policy and public affairs priorities do get in touch.