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Why should we focus on Social Value?

In the face of complex global challenges, people are rightly expecting businesses to do more than just make money. Organisations that deliver meaningful social value change communities for the better and can leave a lasting positive legacy...

Keith Dunham
22 February 2023
Atkins staff who volunteered found the experience overwhelmingly positive
Atkins staff who volunteered found the experience overwhelmingly positive
Keith Dunham, Regional Lead for the North, Atkins
Keith Dunham, Regional Lead for the North, Atkins


Today, doing business is about far more than just making money. 

Faced with complex global challenges like climate change, social inequality and wellbeing, governments, policymakers and the public are rightly expecting businesses to deliver more. The United Nations defines these goals at the highest level in their 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Organisations that deliver meaningful social value change communities for the better and can leave a lasting positive legacy. This might include awarding contracts to local suppliers, donating to public realm projects, providing staff to volunteer for community causes, hiring apprentices, or helping people get back into work.

Although organisations like Atkins have been delivering social value for many years, through supporting educational organisations and considering sustainability, the wider benefits haven’t always been clearly identifiable or measured. Looking forward, we must all get much better at planning, measuring and demonstrating social value, so we can understand its wider impact and optimise investments.

What are the wider benefits?

At Atkins, staff can use volunteer days to visit schools, universities and STEM charities across the UK. They can also support community initiatives and help people get back into employment. Although many of the direct benefits of these initiatives are easily quantifiable, many of the indirect benefits aren’t as easy to measure.

For several years, Atkins has been supporting Grange Community Gardens in Preston. The Grange provides horticultural opportunities for local people with mental health issues, enabling them to be active and contribute to the community. They grow a range of fruit and vegetables and distribute them to those in need. During the pandemic, the overseeing organisation, Let’s Grow Preston, supported around 1,440 families per week and delivered 47,520 food parcels, enough for over 550,000 meals. 

Although these metrics are easily quantifiable, what other benefits did the scheme deliver? Did it help reduce local crime? Did a crime reduction ease the burden on our emergency services?

Home House Prison in Stockton on Tees houses over one thousand offenders of all ages. Atkins has been working in partnership with Home House and Balfour Beatty to providing support and guidanceto prepare them for employment opportunities at the end of their sentence. 

Over the past 12 months, the initiative has supported approximately 20 offenders, providing internal training and development, interview training techniques, and supporting CV preparation. Again, while we can quantify the direct benefits of this in terms of employment, what are the wider impacts? Is the community safer? How can we measure any related benefits and objectively link them to this initiative?

This year staff from the transportation business in Atkins have worked with 27 schools and universities. Activities include promoting careers in engineering and the built environment, providing career advice, undertaking mock interviews and supporting CV writing.

The initiative has multiple objectives – developing skills and confidence, encouraging under-represented groups into the industry, and inspiring the next generation of engineers to help address some of the world’s problems, such as climate change. 

We can easily quantify the time and cost of these visits, but how do we show the value we have delivered to society? Over what period should we measure them? What impact does this have on the broader economy?

Besides investing in ‘volunteer time’ to support other organisations, Atkins also delivers social value through planning, designing and enabling infrastructure projects. 

These projects enable the movement of people, goods, and services. They provide utilities to homes and businesses. The New Wear Crossing in Sunderland is the first new bridge to be built across the River Wear in 40 years.

It will link the suburbs of Castletown with Pallion and enable land along the river to be regenerated. It will attract investment into Sunderland, help to create jobs and reduce journey time for motorists travelling around the city. These benefits form part of the business case to justify making such investments, but how do we measure how successful we have been? Over what period do we monitor this? How is this information used?

How should organisations evidence Social Value?

The standard approach for many local authorities to measure and evidence social value is currently the national Themes, Outcomes and Measures (TOMS) tool. Created by experts from the public and private sectors, this framework seeks to maximise impact in five key areas – jobs, growth, social, environment and innovation. It enables organisations to convert their activities into a monetary value based on a standardised list.

However, while TOMS is relatively straightforward to use and provides consistency, there is a risk that it does not consider the local context. Although councils can tailor the TOMs to their specific needs, many procurements contain a generic menu of metrics and little direction regarding the local needs in the area. For example, the unit value for one week of an apprentice's time is £224.07 – but many procurements haven’t taken the time to research if it should have a higher value in an area with lots of investment and a skills shortage.

Similarly, should it have a lower value in an area with an existing skilled workforce? Would organisations deliver more value by focusing on other activities? Without adjustments for local factors, the derived values remain somewhat arbitrary and there is a risk that we are missing opportunities to deliver real, lasting, social improvements.

The Scottish Government recognised this in 2020, stating that ‘social impact is not fixed or easily transferable. Impact arises from the interaction between supply and demand, and therefore will be specific to the individual, community, and place. Public bodies must engage with communities who have an interest in the contract to get the best possible outcome’.

One of the fundamental principles of social value is to leave a legacy of wellbeing for individuals and communities, including creating social capital and regenerating the environment. Another weakness of our current measurement tools is that they don’t consider the legacy elements of initiatives and activities. Without this, how can we understand whether we have delivered the intended impacts and outcomes? How can this information be used to learn lessons and refine our approach?

How can we think regionally?

One challenge faced by public sector organisations is collaborating to achieve successful outcomes. In some ways, our current system doesn’t facilitate this. For example, Local Authority organisations often have to compete with one another for funding.

However, just as infrastructure projects must consider the wider, regional and national context, we should also consider social value at these levels. This is especially important when we consider the need to ‘Level Up’ across the UK by supporting areas that do not have the same wealth or opportunities as others.

Although the country has different local and regional issues and priorities, many are shared. If we are to maximise opportunities to drive social value across our communities, we must collaborate to identify the key issues in each area and prioritise social value initiatives which address these. Are there regional air quality issues? Are there common health problems?

Are adjacent areas similarly economically advantaged? What are the blockers to employment? What skills are needed to support this? How can we ensure local businesses benefit from these opportunities?

One approach to this would be to establish Social Value communities, drawing together representatives from different organisations to agree on key initiatives and build momentum. This could involve repeated school visits to talk about a range of career paths or focus on place-making in a deprived area.

A more joined-up, consistent framework would enable shared issues to be identified and common approaches established. Addressing key social and environmental issues attracts people and investment. More people and investment will improve the local economy. Collaboration is clearly a catalyst for Social Value.

How will Social Value evolve in the future?

Social Value is increasingly on the agenda at all levels of society. Besides the economic and environmental benefits, taking part improves our own physical and mental wellbeing. The importance of work-life balance is an increasing priority for many employers and supporting social value can provide a productivity boost due to improved relationships, motivation and morale.

Atkins staff who volunteered for the Grange Community Gardens initiative in Preston found the experience overwhelmingly positive, with an overall feedback average score of 4.85 out of 5, or 97%. Many provided positive feedback statements about ‘getting to know colleagues better’ and ‘feeling rewarded for supporting a good cause’.

So how will the social value agenda evolve over the coming years? We need to get better at understanding, measuring and communicating the benefits. We need to collaborate more effectively to identify and prioritise the most important local and regional issues. And we need to continue prioritising mental health and recognise the importance of connecting with nature and helping others. 

But ultimately, we need to recognise that we are on a journey, and we all have a role to play.

Keith Dunham is Regional Lead for the North, Atkins

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