Yesterday saw the launch of the new Social Return on Investment guide, co-authored by nef staff and backed by the Cabinet Office. This is good news for organisations and institutions that wish to account for their performance across the triple bottom line. It is also timely in the current economic environment when the pressure is on to cut costs and make immediate savings. Taking an SROI approach involves thinking about value in a different way – beyond costs and financial savings and over the longer-term. This is in sharp contrast with the recent budget proposals to claw back funds through efficiency savings; these are essentially cuts which will ultimately jeopardise frontline services. Where these services are delivering value, cutting back will lead to poorer outcomes and greater long-term costs.
SROI promotes the idea of ‘social value’, a concept that is gaining increasing currency across the political spectrum. In some ways its legitimacy is indisputable; few people would argue that things that are bought and sold and have an ‘economic value’ are the things that matter most, yet in our daily lives we generally unwittingly accept that to be the case. What people have resisted is the notion that this type of value is measurable and quantifiable. While concerns about this are understandable they are misguided and ultimately unhelpful. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that what we pay for goods and services equates with some intrinsic value. Instead, what the market does – in fact what is effectively for – is to bring together people whose valuations happen to coincide. This ‘coincidence’ is called ‘price discovery’ but it is not uncovering any ‘true’ or ‘fundamental’ value, rather it is matching people who agree on what something is worth. Calculating social value is the same as this in virtually every way. The difference is that goods are not traded in the market and so there is no process of ‘price discovery’. This does not mean, however, that these social goods do not have a value to people.
Why does this matter? It matters because it is about more than the logic of an abstract philosophical debate. By ignoring value that is created and destroyed outside the market we have given far greater significance to things that are bought and sold than they perhaps merit. This has grave, practical implications that have helped to lead us down the shaky and unsustainable path we are now on.
The debate that has raged about the efficiency of the Post Office network encapsulates this well – people feel that there was a value to it beyond what can be measured financially, and yet decisions about its future are made largely on a financial basis. Measuring and quantifying social value will never be an exact science; the subjectivity of value makes that impossible. This did not prevent us creating markets and developing accounting practices to enable us to carry on the business of everyday life. Neither should it prevent us seeking to reduce inequalities and improve the health of the planet by bringing onto the balance sheet the real and costs and benefits of the decisions and trades that we make. SROI is the most developed and robust methodology available for doing this. It is now being mainstreamed in the third sector, which has led the way on innovative measurement but its potential is much greater than that. We need to get to a stage where our actions and behaviours are judged and rewarded by the extent to which we create or destroy value in its broadest sense, if we are to find an equitable and sustainable way through the many problems we currently face.