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The GO Lab has been closely involved in several recent projects to align the social sector behind a common vocabulary. In an upcoming blog post, we'll do a deep dive into this issue, including the distinctions between impact, value, outcomes, and wellbeing, as well as the relative benefits and drawbacks of standardisation and measurement. For now, though, let's discuss an important recent development in the discussion of social value.

The British Standards Institution's recent initiative to codify social value is an exciting step forward for the sector, although there are still important changes to make. The GO Lab submitted an official response during the BSI’s window for public input, which has now closed. We expect BSI to release their final version soon, and hope to see these comments incorporated. Our critiques are summarized below, but please refer to our official response for specific comments and suggestions.

First, the BSI should make an effort to strongly delineate between different concepts of social value, and in particular to steer away from using it interchangeably with "wellbeing" as if it was given as a fact. Experts from all sectors, from non-profits and academia to the private sector and even national governments, are discussing ways to define and implement social value into measurement and eventually decision making. But despite considerable progress, there is not a consensus on either its definition or application. A strong standard guide should give different opinions appropriate credits and help converging the conversation towards a common understanding. This was lacking from the provisional guide and is probably the main drawback.

Many believe that a subjective measure of wellbeing is not the perfect frame for the concept of social value, due to a variety of reasons:

  • Wellbeing limits the scope of analysis. Many UK institutions, including TOMs and the UK government’s proposed Social Value Act reform, include other themes such as Diverse Supply Chains, Inclusion, Environmental Sustainability, Jobs, Growth, and Innovation.
  • Wellbeing is amorphous and difficult to measure. There is currently little agreement about what it means in terms of outcomes or impact. The usage of this term introduces even more ambiguity to the Social Value question.
  • Wellbeing is generally taken as a personal (or ‘micro’) indicator, rather than something that can be easily applied to society. As such, it is difficult to define the correct measurement and aggregation methods, or the relevant scope. Whereas the opposite stands for social value (i.e. a ‘macro’ level concept).

Second, we must make a concerted effort to identify particular "outcomes" and "outputs" as separate from the ultimate value or impact. This can be a difficult task, but it is crucial to distinguish the level and scope of analysis required for different types of measurement. This problem is only exacerbated by the use of "wellbeing" as an outcome.

Third, we believe that a BSI policy on data collection in social value could benefit from some careful rewording:

  • Place a greater emphasis on transparency as a key factor in useful evidence collection.
  • Include more of the many different standards and relevant types of information. Words should be added to reference not only data, but “meta-data, data use, data definitions and/or data standards.” In addition, it would be useful to refine sub-headings and labelling throughout, especially in the section regarding data standards. 
  • "Data collection" should be rephrased to define a broader set of possible informational activities. The current use of the term ‘collect data’ to cover all activities from planning and feasibility analysis to implementation, actual data collection, and measurement is confusing. BSI should consider changing the title to “collect evidence."

Startlingly, given its providence, the guide does not refer to the important issue of standardisation of social value. This could be superficially remedied with a few wording changes, but should also be an important starting point for further discussions.

Finally, The BSI guide introduces economic valuation methods as a ranking tool rather than an impact measurement tool. This is not consistent with the current conversations around impact management, where monetisation, a form of valuation, is promoted as the preferred strategy in measuring impact. If this guide does not agree with that, this should be brought up and discussed further.

Overall, the British Standards Institution has accomplished an enormous task: pulling together countless stakeholders for a first crack at a definition of social value. This will serve as an invaluable starting point for further discussions, both in the UK and abroad. We at the GO Lab are excited to be involved in similar projects aiming to eventually define this amorphous concept for broader use in the social value sector.