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Updating social value for the internet age



Guest opinion: Mark Thompson, senior lecturer in information systems at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, questions how public value should be defined in the digital era


In traditional government Sir Humphrey knew best, and from the 1970s business knew best, as managers imported ‘best practice’ from the private sector under the rubric of New Public Management (NPM). Since the mid-1990s, however, proponents of public value have argued that citizens know best.

Whereas NPM aimed to add efficiency to traditional, legal-rational ways of doing things in government, public value aims to add ‘values’1, arguing that ultimately, citizens are the only arbiter of whether an activity in the public sphere is any good, or not.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of public value is that it judges our public services from the citizen’s, and not the manager’s end of the telescope.

This reversal has been underpinned by a growing feeling, crystallised by Harvard’s Mark Moore2, that NPM’s preoccupation with management procedure and metrics was often of limited public ‘shareholder value’: specifically, that the use of marketised language tended to result in a bureaucratic focus on inputs to public services – accounting, meetings, organisation structures, documents, slidedecks, audits, subcontracting, etc – over service outcomes (efficient hospitals, clean streets, great social care services, etc) that actually matter to citizens and benefit the broader public sphere.3

Assessment struggle

So far, so good. However, public organisations appear to have struggled to agree how to assess public value.

There are examples in the five case studies on GOV.UK intended by government to illustrate the Public Value Act. The first – North Bank Forum and Hull – concludes that “there is no common definition among public sector organisations of what social value means and no consensus over how this question is best evidenced as part of the tender process.”4

Another, Prince’s Trust, measured social value in terms of freebies Salford Council had secured from a supplier of bus services that included “helping to deliver a garden project to a local vicarage” and “repairing pot holes for a local sports club”.5

Aintree University, has a “social value strategy” that sits alongside existing business as usual, which suggests asking tenderers to think of ways they might contribute to social value if the university cannot think of any itself.6 

In no case is there any radical re-understanding by government of its role.

Box ticking

If all this sounds like public value is becoming just another public sector compliance box-to-be-ticked, then perhaps it might be time to revert to the central ideal: that the end-service to citizens, or the longer term good of the public sphere, is the only point at which any value is actually created, and recognised, at all.

For a government desperately trying to square the circle of escalating demand, growing inflation, falling wages, low productivity, declining share of world GDP, and an uncertain Brexit, public value offers a much needed framework for deciding what government should do, and what it should not.

This is where internet based thinking can help. Successful, internet-literate organisations constantly distinguish between the activities that add value to their customers, and the standardisable stuff that adds no direct value at all. They’re constantly improving the former, and they stream the latter over the internet wherever possible – like films over Netflix.

If you design your organisation right, this stuff should be really straightforward: so straightforward in fact, that some organisational academics have dubbed this the ‘Lego era’.

In the face of such developments, building and running, or even outsourcing, the tens of thousands of separate administrative organisations that consume so much of our public budget (£114 billion would be a conservative estimate7) makes as much sense as each of us building and running our own Google service.

Little value

Viewed through this lens, I’m afraid much that government and its suppliers do has little social value. If, say, a supplier wins a contract to build a new government data centre – pretty much the equivalent of building a private Google – but promises to repaint the local school gates and establish a local football club, does that make the fundamental activity (and cost) of building the data centre socially valuable? 

Such activity surely smacks of ‘valuewash’: muddled thinking that lets both administrator and supplier off the hook, but quietly suits both8

We should overhaul public value for the internet age. Hard pressed public servants, not to mention the public for whom public services are increasingly rationed, surely deserve better.

[1] Public Value Theory: Reconciling Public Interests, Administrative Autonomy and Efficiency - Review of Public Administration and Management
[2] Moore, M. (1995). Creating Public Value – Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[3] Bennington, J., Moore, M.H. (2011) Public Value Theory & Practice. Palgrave Macmillan. (p.42).
[4] NBF Social Value Case Study
[5] Prince's Trust Social Value Case Study 
[6] DCMS Social Value Case Study
[7] With a total public spending budget of £814bn, a reasonable estimate is that 14% of this goes on administration, a figure acknlwedged by the Department of Health.
[8] The hidden exploitation of frontline staff by their own administrators


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