The Social Value Act, the Disability Employment Gap and the Need for Action on the Ground.
An Open Letter to the UK’s Disability Charities
In recent years, I have been researching the use of the Social Value Act in the UK. This act requires central and local government bodies in the UK to include ‘social value considerations’ in the £400 billion per annum procurement of goods, services and projects.
The numerous social value ‘themes’ the act covers includes ‘promoting equal opportunity’, part of which is ‘reducing the disability employment gap’, via suppliers committing to employ disabled people and reduce barriers / increase support for disabled employees.
“The UK public sector spends £400 billion with suppliers. The Social Value Act means a significant proportion of this could help reduce the disability employment gap. At present, that is not happening”
In my research, I have found considerable social value being created, but very little targeting the disability employment gap. Part of the reason why is that disability employment as a social value ‘theme’ is not being promoted and explained to the key decision makers on the ground in both the procuring public bodies and their suppliers.
As such, I am writing this open letter to find out more about the UK disability charities’ experiences with the Social Value Act. The Disability Charity Consortium’s recent National Disability Strategy aimed at the UK Government mentions procurement quite prominently, but the issue is less the need for a government policy commitment (this already exists) and more the need to affect practice on the ground.
What is the Social Value Act and what is its relevance to disability charities?
A bit of background for those not familiar with public procurement. How public bodies in the UK spend £400 billion per annum with suppliers is regulated – by ‘procurement rules’. For many years, these rules required public bodies to judge supplier bids (for cleaning, catering, maintenance, building contracts, etc.) on pretty narrow economic grounds.
This changed in 2012 when the Public Services (Social Value) Act was passed. This act requires public bodies 'to have regard to economic, social and environmental well-being’ when letting contracts to suppliers. Specifically, the act permits requiring suppliers to either reconfigure their offering around issues of well-being or address well-being alongside their provision of goods, services or projects.
In 2020, the act was stiffened by a ‘policy note’ called PPN 06/20 that changed the wording from ‘have regard’ to ‘explicitly evaluate’ – social value is now high up the public sector agenda. PPN 06/20 also outlined more clearly the social value ‘themes’ the government has in mind: Covid-19 recovery; tackling economic inequality; fighting climate change; well-being; and equal opportunity.
The latter theme – equal opportunity – is where the relevance to disability charities comes in.
The Social Value Act – an opportunity to reduce the disability employment gap?
As stated above, the ‘equal opportunity’ theme has ‘reducing the disability employment gap’ as one of its two policy outcomes. Specifically, PPN 06/20 calls on public bodies to:
Demonstrate action to increase the representation of disabled people in the contract workforce.
Support disabled people in developing new skills relevant to the contract, including through training schemes that result in recognised qualifications.
Influence staff, suppliers, customers and communities through the delivery of the contract to support disabled people.
This seems highly promising. As mentioned, the UK public sector spends £400 billion on goods, services and projects delivered by suppliers each year. Much of this could help reduce the disability employment gap – the mechanism exists.
However, while there is increasing social value being created across the five social value themes, I have found that relatively little procurement of goods, services and projects includes disability employment-related social value.
Disability employment as ‘Cinderella’ policy outcome – why might this be so?
To find out why, I launched a research project that saw over 40 managers in public bodies, suppliers and relevant advisory bodies interviewed. Everyone interviewed considered reducing the disability employment gap to be important. However, barriers to this happening were also reported by these interviewees:
First, including social value requirements related to disability employment within procurements was seen as challenging, especially compared to other social value actions - like suppliers offering apprenticeships. Some managers within public bodies were unclear how to go about it and worried about making mistakes. So, a clear need exists for education and support for public bodies (and their suppliers).
Second, there was little evidence of managers on the ground in public bodies receiving representations from disability charities – to provide that education, but also to lobby for social value in public procurement to be directed at reducing the disability employment gap.
The research showed a clear need for such ‘on the ground’ lobbying, as the choice of social value ‘themes’ was revealed in the research to often be the result of engagement within a network of interested parties, including procurement managers and ‘stakeholders’ (budget-holders, policy makers, etc.) within public bodies, relevant ‘community’ organisations (for example, within a local authority area) and relevant suppliers.
These ‘ground-level’ networks seek to match community needs, public body social value priorities and supplier capabilities/social value priorities when considering the social value ‘theme(s)’ to adopt for a particular procurement.
As such, there is a need for disability charities and other interested parties to break into these networks if we are to see an increased amount of public procurement featuring social value related to disability employment.
“Disability charities and other interested parties need to come together to develop a strategy for increasing the amount of public procurement targeting the disability employment gap. Crucially, this means engagement with ‘on the ground’ decision-makers”
What was interesting about observing these networks was that it wasn’t necessarily beneficial that disability is a ‘universal’ issue, affecting all types of communities. For example, in the case of local authorities, the focus of engagement within these networks was often on specific local needs and issues. This doesn’t preclude disability charities seeking to break into these networks, but it is something to be borne in mind when doing so.
A call to action – developing a strategy for representing disability employment interests at ‘ground-level’
The overriding impression gained from the research was that of a missed opportunity. Thousands of procurements each year, many of high value, are including social value considerations, yet the policy outcome of reducing the disability employment gap is receiving relatively little attention.
There is a clear need for active education and lobbying of public bodies at ‘ground-level’ to address this missed opportunity. The policy architecture is already there. What is missing is that ‘ground level’ engagement.
My research suggests this type of engagement is not currently happening. If my research is wrong in this respect, please correct me. Otherwise, I call upon the UK’s disability charities to urgently develop a strategy for such engagement so this huge opportunity can be seized. Many in academia and organisations like DRN stand ready to assist.
Chris Lonsdale is a professor at the University of Birmingham. The use of public procurement to promote social value is part of his overall research agenda concerning public and private sector procurement (email@example.com.)
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