Election campaigning has begun in earnest and so has the political point scoring. And the most contentious issue for debate is as always how this country runs its public services. Labour insists we roll back from a privatisation agenda especially on the NHS. The Conservatives on the other hand argue that opening up competition is the way forward.
At a time of budget cutbacks and uncertainty, people deserve clear leadership and confidence that the services they pay for are run efficiently and benefit the community.
Public services should- as the name suggests- provide a service and this can be achieved if we take a more inspired approach to commissioning. Imagine putting your money in a bank which not only gives you a good return but also gives back to society. A bank which say helps regenerate a run-down part of town or improves facilities at a community centre. Imagine a world where the organisations that run services are adding 'social' value and not leaving you with the sense you're being ripped off.
This is already happening in the form of social enterprises. We've got nurses running NHS social care services as businesses and reinvesting the profits for the benefit of people locally. There are librarians now in charge of transforming services so libraries open longer hours for readers.
There's no denying local authorities are under huge pressures to make efficiency savings. The welfare budget alone has endured cuts of £20 billion over the past few years. So the temptation is to stick with what you know, with NHS preferred providers. Or outsource work to a company which can do the job on the cheap but has a questionable reputation. However, new laws in the form of the Social Value Act were intended to change all this. The reforms brought in last year were aimed at ensuring those who commission public services don't just focus on cost. Instead, the Act improves the way taxpayers money is spent by requiring everyone running health, social care and education services to consider how they can improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing in their area. It can be a challenge to define exactly what 'social value' means. But at Turning Point we create it in many ways such as helping those who've overcome addiction act as mentors to others on the challenging path to recovery.
To me, the definition of 'social value' is that every pound of taxpayers' money spent by commissioners improves the community in some way. This is in addition to providing value for money. This doesn't appear to be what happened when Circle took over Hinchingbrooke hospital. Here profit seemed the priority. Circle walked away when they couldn't make the contract work. They knew they could just hand back the keys leaving the taxpayer to pick up the pieces. This is the opposite of social value.
Social enterprises, not unlike John Lewis, aim to make sufficient profit which they then use to add value as opposed to focusing purely on profit maximisation. I'm not saying public services should be run exactly like a business but they do need to be more innovative. The people they serve can benefit if they apply commercial strategies to improve communities.
The Social Value Act has led to a change in mind-set. We're seeing the issue of social value being given greater prominence when contracts go out to tender. But the Act needs more teeth so it's neither evaded nor ignored. If you're bidding to run or public services then you should look to demonstrate a genuine commitment to improving quality of life for everyone.
There's a clear need for deeper thinking on how we deliver services to the taxpayer. This is regardless of who forms a government after the General Election. Wishing away either private or public sector delivery is pointless because it drives innovation and provides services for those left without. Instead, we need a range of resources and expertise that will truly deliver the services to the public that they deserve.