What is the purpose of social value?
Jeremy Nicholls is an international expert on social value and has written a paper on the Future of Social Value as part of our Social Value 2032 programme to stimulate discussion and debate. You can read the full paper here
Jeremy’s views are his own and not representative of Social Enterprise UK or any of the Social Value 2032 partners.
For those of us who think about social value in the context of the Social Value Act, the idea of social value is relatively new. For others it has been around a bit longer – rooted in the idea of value for society. Go back a bit further and economists, politicians and philosophers have been grappling with the question of value for society for a long time.
The increase in the use of fossil fuels, the age of exploration – aka invasion, the enslavement of people whose countries had been ‘explored’ and the increase in the use of fossil fuels, alongside innovations in systems to manage all this; financial markets, accountancy, joint stock and later limited liability companies, all contributed to a rapid increase in global GDP.
All this drove, and still drives, more argument and debate over the nature of value. Arguments that became both revolutions and wars, over access to resources that drive capitalism and the distribution of the benefits that arise. And we built an economic system to allocate those resources to activities to meet those demands, And we talk as if markets had agency as opposed to being people, a few people in the end who either manage huge sums on behalf of others or own huge sums in their own right.
Unfortunately we (I say we though I mean men) built an economic system on the premise that private financial returns will maximise wealth, a system where there is no feedback loop and no limit to that wealth – aside from there also being no control of its distribution – to the point that 1% of the world’s population own 52% of its wealth.
So if social value is to be useful, it needs to be a vehicle for a more radical, systemic rethink of our economic system.
It may be already too late to do this for so many people around the world, and the implications are coming closer to all of us. But it is not too late to redress some of this, to regenerate a damaged society or to provide hope for future generations.
We need to recognise that we allocate resources to activities that should meet people’s needs and that those needs relate to their well-being. This means realising that there is only so much well-being (currently largely measured still by wealth) that you can squeeze into somebody and that endlessly pursuing ever more wealth is no good for anyone. It means recognising that a living wage is one without endless worry and should not be a survival wage. It means recognising that dependency on supply chains where people work in conditions that are lower, much lower, than we would ever accept is a legal sidestep of responsibility as they are someone else’s issue.
These are all issues that social value should address, and the international networks that promote and support approaches to accounting and management of social value seek to address. But they are also the issues that public sector accounting seeks to address, and that with a couple of small tweaks, even private sector accounting could address.
Public sector accounting already references the purpose as being well-being. Charity trustees should already be able to evidence that the public benefits outweigh the negatives.
Were it not for a private sector approach to accounting that allows obligations to be ignored, obligations that most people would, and company directors could, already be willing to recognise, it would quickly be much more aligned. Social value is a way that we can divert the corporation away from focusing purely on expectation of financial returns to an expectation of financial, and social and environmental returns. Ironically, despite the opposition from some, this more closely represents the real investor interest, the interests of you, me and wider society, not the “professional” investment managers.
Remembering that the purpose of allocating our scarce resources is wellbeing, and that this means recognising how dependent we are on natural, social and human capitals, would allow us to align private public and charitable approaches to accounting, and to be held to account, even if indirectly, by the people experiencing the consequences of our private businesses and our public services.
We could even unleash all our human creativity on a goal of contributing to sustainability (and those SDGs which would of course include financial returns). And we might find that sustainability, social value and multi capital approaches all share the same purpose of maintaining and enhancing well-being. Yes, I remain a resolute optimist, but these are all changes within our power, they are all systems created by people and they can be changed by people too.
Public, private and non-profit sectors respond to the incentives that society sets in its legal frameworks. Small changes to these incentive systems – to the wiring behind the walls – can have significant consequences for how resources are allocated – to create social value. Some are already happening, like proposals around s172 of the Companies Act. Some changes will need to go further if we are to align incentives around well-being; changing the purpose behind international accounting standards, developing new public sector accounting standards and aligning accounting with cost benefit analysis. This is the future of social value.